It may be surprising to learn, but the archeological record gives significant evidence that the teeth of people living 600 years ago were better than ours are today. Why is this surprising? Well, first because clearly the scientific understanding, access to resources, and technological know how of the medieval peasant (or king!) was not equal to even the poorest person living in America today. They didn’t have fluoride, modern dentistry, or any sort of anesthetic to use to dull pain besides alcohol.
It’s also surprising because most people today have better teeth – considerably better teeth – than their parents or grandparents did. Full dentures are not entirely a thing of the past, and most people remember knowing at least someone who “took their teeth out at night.” For North Americans today, teeth are whiter, straighter, and healthier than they were 50 years ago. The progress in dental health has happened so fast even we can remember it.
The reason archaeologists dig up ancient skeletons with healthy, intact teeth is because the medieval diet and lifestyle was so much better for dental health than ours is today. And if we are to further boil down those those healthy lifestyle choices to only one factor, it’s that very few medieval people consumed sugar, and almost none of them on a daily basis. So medieval teeth were quite healthy.
Sugar cane originated in New Guinea, but people in India were the ones who figured out how to cultivate and mass produce it. India is quite far away from Europe, however, absent any modern mode of travel. Explorers faced many unknown dangers trying to figure out ways to travel there faster and transport goods from there more cheaply because the discovery of sugar and spices opened wide the possibilities of both food preparation and preservation. Imagine being literally willing to face down sea dragons: that’s what sailors and sea captains were ready to do for access to sugar and spices. Their food must have been very bland to take that kind of risk.
It wasn’t until Europeans discovered the New World that sugar was introduced into the diet of the average person. They converted many islands in the Caribbean and places in South America to sugar plantations because the climate was good for raising sugar cane. They then staffed those plantations with slaves imported from Africa because as workers they were less likely to die of malaria and other tropical diseases or of the heat. Sugar is a backbreaking, labor intensive crop, and paying people to do it kept the price very high. Colonization and slavery made cheap sugar possible for Europeans, and when this happened, demand exploded. The average European citizen consumed four pounds of sugar in 1700, 18 pounds in 1800, and over a hundred pounds by 1900.
And that’s the point in history when dental hygiene took a huge hit: modern day. The plaque in your mouth thrives on sugar, and plaque unchecked eats away at tooth enamel, eventually causing decay and tooth loss. Unfortunately, sugar itself is very addictive. The good news is that most people understand that eating sweets isn’t good for their teeth and better teeth cleaning implements, technology, and dentistry make it unlikely that the Millennial Generation will ever put their teeth in a jar overnight. They may not have teeth as good as the ones their ancestors did, though, unless we make significant strides in improving our diet as a society.
We at Dental Associates of West Michigan are happy to talk with our patients about making better dietary and lifestyle choices as well as how to address any of their current dental concerns. If you want personalized dental care from a friendly, professional staff, call Dental Associates today.