Should The Government Add Fluoride To Our Water? Or Should We Just Give Our Kids Less Sugar?

The government’s latest idea to improve our children’s health feels like sticking a plaster over a preventable wound

Girl eating cake

by Rosamund Dean |
Updated on

For more parenting stories and advice, check out Grazia's parenting community on Instagram @TheJuggleUK

This week it has been reported that ministers are drawing up plans to add fluoride to our drinking water, in an effort to cut tooth decay in children by a quarter.

The UK’s chief medical officers have conducted a review that says this step could reduce hospital admissions for teeth extraction by between 45 and 68 per cent. You might not be aware that tooth decay is the most common reason for children aged five to nine to be admitted to hospital, with many having to go through surgery under anaesthetic to extract rotten teeth.

But is it really necessary to add a chemical to our drinking water, when everyone knows the tenets of good oral health: brushing well (easier said than done when a seven-year-old is holding the brush), having regular dental check-ups and eating less sugar.

Yes, sorry, I am one of those mums that tries to limit their kids’ sugar intake. We don’t have sugary snacks at home, and I’m often mocked by mum friends for turning up to a picnic with a tupperware of chopped-up fruit and veg. And I am fully aware of how privileged I am to have the time and money to prioritise my kids’ health in this way.

Sajid Javid has tweeted that ‘tooth decay… disproportionately affects more deprived groups.’ Which is absolutely true. But I can’t help feeling this attitude is patronising towards less well-off families. People act as though good health (including good oral health) is an expensive endeavour involving organic blueberries and kale, and is out of reach for people on lower incomes.

I grew up in a single parent family, eating free school meals, so I know that time and money are the dual barriers to better overall health. Surely the government could help protect children’s teeth in other ways - by making the cheapest and most convenient choice the healthiest one.

They could start with school dinners. Despite my best sugar-limiting efforts at home, my kids eat a dessert (cake, custard, ice-cream, jelly, etc) every day at school. I don’t make a fuss about this because I don’t want our kids to be the only ones not allowed to have it - I believe fitting in with your friends is as important for mental health as good nutrition is for physical health. But would it be so hard to ditch those sugary desserts in favour of plain old fruit and yoghurt? Surely it would actually be cheaper? And that simple step requires zero effort from parents to cut the amount of sugar their kids are consuming.

Recently, a six-month study at three branches of Iceland found that moving sweets away from the checkouts resulted in 1,500 fewer items of confectionery and 10,000 extra pieces of fruit and vegetables being bought per store each week. Making that compulsory in every supermarket would be another easy win (it would certainly help me (and other exhausted parents) out when we're just trying to buy a pint of milk without a meltdown over a child's-eye-level Kinder egg at the checkout).

Those two simple steps would also lead to the happy side effect of reducing many other problems associated with a high-sugar diet, from skin conditions and mental health issues to the long-term results of heart disease and cancer. It would make our children happier and healthier and, in financial terms (which I think the government prefer), it would save the NHS lots of money. Win-win, right?

To be clear, I’m not some mad conspiracy theorist who is against putting fluoride in the water for health reasons (one online comment today claims the Nazis did the same thing to keep people ‘more docile’). I trust Professor Chris Whitty, and he has said that arguments against fluoridation are ‘exaggerated and unevidenced’. And, if he’s fine with it, then so am I.

I just can’t help thinking that prevention is always, always better than cure.

READ MORE: When Will We Stop Judging Mothers For Their Childcare Choices?

READ MORE: How To Wean Your Baby As A Vegetarian

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us