Why are some people so sensitive to halitosis, while others seem to be almost immune to the smell of bad breath? There are several reasons, including basic physical factors like a hypersensitive nose or the presence of an unfamiliar or especially strong scent. But, overall, we can chalk up insensitivity to bad breath to the fact that all diets, not matter how veggie-heavy, appear to cause halitosis.
This means that virtually everyone gets bad breath, which then makes it harder for their noses to pick up on the smell of other peoples’ oral funk.
It’s true — and a new study appearing in the European Journal of Nutrition has confirmed it. Author Jukka Meurman, of the University of Helsinki, began by considering the idea that certain diets are more likely to give you funky breath. After all, if specific foods like garlic or asparagus can give you halitosis, then why not whole dietary regimens?
However, Meurman found that there’s hardly one style of eating that causes oral odor. Instead, all diets seem to.
He did note that “fermentable carbohydrates…should be avoided in cases with bad breath,” since carbs may encourage bacteria to multiply. But overall, he could not point his finger at just one offending diet: “No controlled studies exist on the effect of dietary regimens on halitosis, which in effect is mostly due to putrescence in deep periodontal pockets or tonsillar crypts.”
He’s certainly right there. Most bad breath starts in the mouth as a result of gum disease, tonsil stones or a dry tongue.
Now, that’s not to say that food doesn’t cause bad breath. It does. Rather, Meurman found that all diets (instead a particular one) eventually lead to halitosis.
Consider a diet that’s dairy-heavy. Would you expect it to give you bad breath? (After all, certain cheeses are quite stinky, and milk seems to reliably lead to funky mouth odor.) Well, if you said yes, you’d be right: Dairy can quickly ferment in your mouth, leading to the production of volatile sulfur compounds, the molecules that give halitosis its nasty reek.
That doesn’t mean that milk is without its dental benefits. Not only does dairy contain calcium, a mineral needed for bone hardness, but it is also the breeding ground for Lactobacillus salivarius K12, the microbe used in specialty oral care probiotics to banish other, odor-causing bacteria.
And, according to Kimberly Harms, a spokesperson for the American Dental Association, milk can even be used to preserve a tooth that’s been knocked out. She told CNN that it’s the beverage’s almost-neutral pH, not its calcium content, that can keep a tooth’s trailing ligament adequately moist — at least, for a few hours, until a dentist tries to reset it in your mouth.
Okay, so carbs cause odor, dairy causes odor, and fats (like those found in heavy or oily meats) clearly lead to halitosis. So, what about veggies or herbs? Surely, fragrant herbs eliminate bad breath instead of causing it?
Well, not really. If your body can use it as food, so can bacteria. That means that ancient peoples’ herbal halitosis remedies never really worked all that well. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association, folks in biblical times munched whole cloves, nibbled on parsley or even chewed on mastic, a fragrant tree resin that may have been the first form of chewing gum. But all of this was to no avail.
All foods, no matter how sweet-scented, give oral microbes fodder to produce odors.
So, if everyone gets bad breath, why are some people more offended by it? And, for that matter, who is the most sensitive to halitosis?
According to Susan Nachnani, director of the University Health Resources Group in Culver City, California, the answer to the latter question is: Women. In a paper appearing in the journal Electronic Noses and Olfaction 2000, she explained that ladies naturally tend to be a bit better at picking up on oral odor with their noses — which is why they usually make the best bad breath detectives, also known as organoleptic judges (OJs).
That’s an actual profession. And it’s a fiercely competitive one — OJs are usually certified periodontologists, dentists and even microbiologists. Nachnani explained that young women are particularly well-suited to sniff and rate halitosis, since the sense of smell slowly fades with age. (Another strike against older dental professionals is that, having sniffed oral odor for so many years, they may be all but immune to the stink of bad breath.)
So how do you become an OJ? By running an academic gauntlet. According to Sean Lee’s textbook Breath, to become an OJ, you have to pass two rigorous, smell-based standardized tests: the University of Pennsylvania Smell Identification Test and the Butanol Threshold Test.