Nuts Pose Particular Dangers to Teeth

Jerry Henkin


Dental professionals may encounter more patients with broken or cracked teeth now that the year’s hard-shelled nuts such as walnuts, butternuts, hickory nuts, pecans, pine nuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, and Brazil nuts have been cured and are ready to eat. For example, Lee Reich, a noted author and lecturer on gardening topics who grows nut and fruit trees on his small farm, recently had an expensive encounter.

“When I go skiing I like to take along some snack food, typically a mix of nuts and dried fruit. One ski outing, I was all out of nuts except the black walnuts that we crack and jar up each year, so I put black walnuts in the mix. At a break in skiing I poured some mix into the palm of my hand, and then tossed it into my mouth,” he said.

“Unfortunately, there was a piece of shell in the mix. As I bit down, the piece of shell went up into the tooth just behind my left eye tooth and split it like a piece of wood being split by a maul—very uncomfortable. Long story short, $2,000 later the tooth had been extracted and a fake tooth mounted, held in place to the 2 teeth behind it via a cantilevered bridge,” he said. “I still love the flavor of black walnuts. And I’m a bit more careful when separating the nutmeats from shells.”

Other activities also will break teeth: chewing ice, hard candy, popcorn kernels, and other hard foods; clenching or grinding teeth (bruxism); falling; practicing such contact sports as martial arts, wrestling, and football; and using teeth as a tool to open bottles instead of using a bottle opener, or opening packages instead of using a scissors. If a tooth is already weakened with decay or a filling, these habits can chip or break it.

Your patients should be aware that they should contact you for a dental checkup as soon as possible if they have chipped or broken a tooth. If the chipped tooth hurts, the tooth nerve may become infected, entailing a root canal.

But if dental care must wait, there are some first aid treatments that everyone should know. First, rinse your mouth with warm, salted water to clean and soothe it. If there’s bleeding, press a clean cloth on the area to arrest the blood flow. If there is pain, apply a cold pack to the lips, and take some pain reliever. Next, apply temporary dental cement or wax, available over the counter at a drug store, to mask the damage and protect the tongue. Finally, only eat soft foods, chewing away from the damaged tooth.

Meanwhile, nut lovers should make sure that there are no stray pieces among the kernels after cracking nuts. Wearing reading glasses and separating the shells from the kernels in good light helps. Don’t mix various nuts, seeds, and fruits because the color of the hard shell pieces are often camouflaged.  Dropping the shelled nuts on a glass plate prior to eating can help you to hear the sharper sound of a shell. And, chew slowly, so if a shell piece winds up in your mouth, you can feel it and remove it before it breaks a tooth.   

Jerry Henkin is the vice president of the New York Nut Growers Association. His association with the organization began 30 years ago when a neighbor pointed out a walnut tree near his community garden. Research led him to join the Northern Nut Growers Association, where he serves as librarian. He also has planted a demonstration nut grove at the Rockefeller State Part Preserve in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. He can be reached at  

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