What Role Do Teeth Play in Digestion?

role-teeth-play-digestion Credit: BTA/Moment/Getty Images

Mammalian teeth have developed so that they are specialized to an animal's diet and enable the mastication, cutting and tearing of food. This is part of the mechanical aspect of digestion while enzymes perform the chemical part of the process. Mastication, or chewing, is the first step of digestion and serves to increase the surface area of the material brought into the oral cavity so that enzymes in saliva can begin to break down the food more efficiently.

The four basic types of teeth are incisors, canines, premolars and molars. The incisors are the outermost teeth and enable food to be cut into smaller pieces so that the grinding and crushing teeth can do their work. The canines come next and help to tear apart food that is too tough to be cut by the incisors. The premolars and molars, which follow, are responsible for the crushing and grinding of food to prepare it for the chemical part of the digestive process performed by enzymes.

As food is chewed, it becomes softer and warmer, allowing the enzymes in saliva to begin to break down carbohydrates. After the chewing has been completed, it is passed on the esophagus and sent on to the next stage of digestion in the stomach. The chewed and swallowed food is referred to as a bolus.