My mother, who was born in 1916, had a “sweet tooth.” When I was born, she had dentures, no teeth. White flour and sugar were common ingredients in many meals I consumed between childhood and into my 40s. She got diabetes, and I did too. My first dentist said I had teeth like a horse. They are crowded and crooked. All four of my wisdom teeth were surgically removed, because they were growing sideways, toward the molar next door. I brushed my teeth, but still got cavities.
Back in the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth also had a sweet tooth. Sidney Mintz told an amusing story about her meeting with a German gentleman, who was deeply impressed when her smile revealed a mouthful of black teeth. The peasants looked much healthier than the royalty, because they couldn’t afford sugar, which was an expensive luxury in those days.
In 1893, Weston Price became a dentist in Cleveland, Ohio. As the years passed, Price became aware of a highly unusual trend — the amount of tooth decay that he observed was growing sharply. Something strange was happening. He was watching a serious health crisis emerge right before his eyes, and he didn’t understand the cause. Price suspected that the problem was related to dietary changes.
His curiosity grew. Finally, he decided to do some travelling, in search of healthy people, to see how they lived differently. He spent much of the 1930s visiting many lands, examining the teeth of the residents, taking photographs of them, and studying their diets. He went to remote places where people continued to live in their traditional manner, in regions including Switzerland, Ireland, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Arctic, and Peru. He found many people with beautiful perfect teeth, and he found many with serious dental problems, like his patients in Cleveland. Importantly, he discovered a clear difference in the diets of the two groups.
The people with happy teeth ate the traditional diet of their region, never used a toothbrush, and never saw a dentist. The people with crappy teeth ate a “modernized” diet, including white flour, refined sugar, canned vegetables, jams, and marmalades. Those who lived in remote villages in the hills were fine, but those who lived by the shore, and ate imported modern foods, suffered for it. If one brother stayed in the hills, and the other brother moved to the city by the sea, the difference in their dental health was often striking. Among those eating the modernized diet, the incidence of problems varied from place to place. In some locations, only 25 percent of them had problems, but in other locations up to 75 percent were affected.
The children of those who ate modernized diets had even worse problems. In addition to tooth decay, their dental arches were deformed, so their teeth were crowded and crooked (like mine). Their nostrils were narrower, forcing some to be mouth breathers. Their skulls formed in unusual shapes and sizes, often narrower than normal. Their hips and pelvic bones formed abnormally, making childbirth more difficult. They suffered from far higher rates of chronic and degenerative disease, including cancer, heart disease, and tuberculosis. Their overall health was often weak or sickly. Some were mentally deficient.
Price finally went home and wrote a book to document his findings. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration was published in 1939. The book is loaded with stunning photos. Readers will never forget the powerful pictures. Most of the book’s contents, including the pictures, are available HERE. Click through the pages. His writing includes some racist language that was common in that era.
For the first 200 pages, the chapters proceed, region by region, comparing the health of the people, based on their diet. His descriptions get repetitive, because wherever he goes, he reports the same findings — people who ate their traditional diet had healthy teeth, and people who ate the modern diet more often had lousy teeth and other problems.
All of those enjoying good health included some animal-based foods in their diet. He noted, “It is significant that I have as yet found no group that was building and maintaining good bodies exclusively on plant foods. A number of groups are endeavoring to do so with marked evidence of failure.”
I did some research to see if white flour and sugar were newer foods for the working class and poor. Yes, they were. By the late nineteenth century, both products had become widely available and inexpensive. The primary reason for this was new technology, steam-powered steel roller mills, which appeared around 1890. Melissa Smith and Steven Gundry wrote about the unintended consequences of roller mills.
Previously, grain had been milled between stones, which ground together all parts of the wheat berry, resulting in whole wheat flour. White flour had been made by bolting — sieving whole wheat flour through fine cloth. This was a time-consuming process, so white flour was expensive. White bread was a luxury that only the rich could afford. The waste byproduct of the bolting process was the super-nutritious bran and germ, which was usually fed to livestock.
The new roller mills crushed the grain, rather than finely pulverizing it. This made it much easier to separate the bran and germ from the powdered endosperm (white flour). Because of this, white flour could now be cheaply mass produced. Since people perceived white flour to be a desirable luxury food, they eagerly consumed it.
Gundry noted that the new process eliminated both the fiber-rich bran, and the germ, which was rich in oil and vitamins. White flour was little more than highly refined carbs, which rapidly enter the bloodstream — empty calories. White flour had a much longer shelf life than whole wheat, because it had no oil which would go rancid over time. White flour could be shipped to the ends of the Earth, and stored indefinitely.
By the 1920s, folks realized that white flour was crap. New regulations required that white flour be “enriched” with nutrients, including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and iron. Despite enrichment, white flour remains nutritionally inferior to whole wheat.
With regard to sugar, the steel roller mill was a big improvement. It could extract up to 85 percent of the juice from the cane. The previous technology could extract only 20 percent. So, each ton of cane could produce much more sugar, which lowered the price, and enabled mass production.
Sugar became a major component of the working class diet. By 1900, 20 percent of the calories in the English diet were provided by sugar. Many factory workers started their day with a slice of white bread spread with sugar-packed jam, marmalade, or treacle — many calories, few nutrients. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, the average annual consumption of caloric sweeteners per person in the U.S. peaked in 1999 at 151.6 pounds (68.7 kg). In 2016, it was down to a mere 128.1 pounds (58 kg).
Sugar consumption nearly doubled in the U.S. between 1890 and the early 1920s — an era of rapid growth in the candy and soft drink industries. In some U.S. cities, diabetes deaths quadrupled between 1900 and 1920. By the 1930s, the cancer rates in the U.S. were clearly on the rise. Diabetes and cancer are far less common in societies that do not eat a Western diet.
Smith discussed Dr. Thomas Cleave’s “Rule of 20 Years.” The old doctor noted a spooky pattern. In numerous locations, 20 years after the arrival of white flour and white sugar, primitive people started to suffer from heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, gallbladder disease, and colitis.
You are what you eat!
Price, Weston, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, 1939, Reprint, Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, La Mesa, California, 2008. LINK
Mintz, Sidney W., Sweetness and Power — The Place of Sugar in Modern History, Penguin Books, New York, 1985.
Gundry, Steven R., Dr. Gundry’s Diet Evolution, Crown Publishers, New York, 2008.
Smith, Melissa Diane, Going Against the Grain, Contemporary Books, Chicago, 2002.
Weston Price Foundation — info on nutrition and health.