James Werrell

What? Advocates of flossing were just winging it?

By flossing daily, we are permitted to feel vastly superior to all those who never floss.
By flossing daily, we are permitted to feel vastly superior to all those who never floss. MCT

The phrase “flossing religiously” is particularly apt. Flossing, after all, is something of a religious experience, an act of self-mortification akin to fasting, wearing a hair shirt or, at the very least, passing on a second piece of pie.

It confers not only physical benefits – less plaque and lower odds of getting gingivitis – but also spiritual ones. By flossing daily, we are permitted to feel vastly superior to all those who never floss unless they have been eating corn on the cob or pork ribs – or both – and need to remove a particle of food from between their teeth.

Some fringe cults achieve religious ecstasy by whipping themselves with knotted ropes until their backs are a bloody mess. Flossers take a thin piece of waxed twine and draw it back and forth over their tender gums until it hurts.

But, of course, it is a good pain, one that helps ensure that when the teeth of non-flossers are falling out, ours will still be strong, white and plaque-free.

Alas, though, our religious fervor might be misplaced, as ungrounded in fact as that of tree worshipers. When asked what evidence they have that proves flossing is good for us, the experts essentially replied: “Well, um, we don’t really have any, nothing definitive anyway. But don’t stop flossing!”

What? Are they kidding? After decades of urging us to floss, telling us nightmares about what could happen if we don’t floss, now they are saying nobody actually bothered to test the theory that flossing is good for us?

The Associated Press reported this week that when the federal government issued its latest dietary guidelines this year, the flossing recommendation that had been part of those guidelines since 1979 had been quietly removed. The government sheepishly acknowledged that the effectiveness of flossing has never been adequately researched.

Delving into other studies on flossing, AP researchers learned that just about every one of them has been flawed in some way. Either they involved too few test subjects or they didn’t last long enough to determine accurate results or they just focused on the wrong thing.

All those lectures from dental hygienists; all those miles of floss; all the time spent in front of the mirror moving dutifully from one tooth to the next; and all along, the guys in the white coats were winging it with no reliable evidence that flossing does us any good.

The worst part is now the non-flossers, those undisciplined slackers, can go around feeling all smug because they didn’t waste a valuable part of the morning on this painful ritual. “Nyah, nyah! You flossed until your gums bled, and I didn’t!”

The whiplash-inducing reversals of medical advice should be familiar to all by now. Eggs were bad for you, but now they aren’t. Coffee is dangerous, but now it isn’t. Drink five glasses of water a day – but wait, don’t bother if you’re not thirsty.

It should come as no surprise that “they” (the omnipotent authorities who know stuff) suddenly are uncertain about the efficacy of flossing.

There are two possible responses to this quandary:

One, if you rarely or never floss, continue with confidence, knowing that members of the dental community never really knew what they were talking about anyway.

Two, if you are a devout flosser, continue in the certainty that comes with this eternal truth: Anything this unpleasant must be good for us.

James Werrell is editor of The Herald’s opinion page.