The Tokelau Island Migrant Study: Dental Health

I'm always on the lookout for studies that can confirm or deny the information in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Traveling around the world in the 1920s and 1930s, Dr. Weston Price found a number of non-industrial cultures that had excellent dental and overall health, including a high resistance to tooth decay, perfectly straight teeth, and wisdom teeth that erupted without impacting. These same cultures developed extreme dental problems, including severe dental decay and crooked teeth in the younger generation, upon adopting modern European foods. These foods always included white flour and refined sugar, with variable contributions from canned goods and vegetable oils.

I have detailed information on the Tokelauan diet beginning in 1968 and ending in 1982. The traditional diet until the 1960s consisted of coconut, fish, breadfruit, pulaka, fruit, pigs, chickens and wild fowl. These are typical Polynesian foods. From the 1960s through the 1980s, Tokelauans gradually adopted flour and sugar as major carbohydrate sources, partially displacing starchy breadfruit and pulaka intake as well as coconut. They also began eating low-quality canned meats that partially replaced fish in their diet. Total calorie intake fluctuated between 1,500 and 2,000 kilocalories but did not trend in any particular direction over time. Here's a graph of macronutrient changes:

I found a study on the dental health of Tokelauans that I thought would be a fitting way to kick off this series. It's titled "Changed oral conditions, between 1963 and 1999, in the population of the Tokelau atolls of the South Pacific". I was only able to get my hands on the abstract, but that was enough. In 1963, Tokelauans were consuming roughly 15 lb of white flour and 10 lb of sugar per person per year. By 1980, the numbers were 60 lb and 69 lb for flour and sugar, and the trend was showing no sign of slowing down (see the graph in the previous post). I don't have numbers for 1999, but they're likely to be higher than in 1980, given the trend. For comparison, in 2006, the average American ate 117 lb of flour per year.

Let's look at a graph. This represents the DMF score (decayed, missing or filled teeth) of Tokelauans 15-19 and 35-44 years old, in 1963 and 1999. I've connected the two data points with lines to give an idea of the trend.

Dental decay increased eight-fold in adolescents and more than four-fold in adults. I don't know what their dental health was like before 1963, but I can only guess it was better than when this study was conducted, due to the fact that the Tokelauan diet was already partially modernized in 1963. The authors conclude "a serious decline in oral health has occurred over the past 35 years."

Does this sound familiar? It should be, because it's been known at least since the 1930s. Here's a quote from Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, describing the Tongan islanders, another Polynesian group:
The limited importation of foods to the Tongan Islands due to the infrequent call of merchant or trading ships has required the people to remain largely on their native foods. Following the war, however, the price of copra went up from $40.00 per ton to $400.00, which brought trading ships with white flour and sugar to exchange for the copra. The effect of this is shown very clearly in the condition of the teeth. The incidence of dental caries [cavities] among the isolated groups living on native foods was 0.6 per cent, while for those around the port living in part on trade foods, it is 33.4 per cent. The effect of the imported food was clearly to be seen on the teeth of the people who were in the growth stage at that time [i.e., they developed crooked teeth]. Now the trader ships no longer call and this forced isolation is very clearly a blessing in disguise. Dental caries has largely ceased to be active since imported foods became scarce, for the price of copra fell to $4.00 a ton. The temporary rise in tooth decay was apparently directly associated with the calling of trader ships.
0.6 percent is one tooth in every 167. In other words, less than one in five people had even a single cavity. That's without the benefit of tooth brushing, fluoride or any of the tools of modern dentistry. 33.4 percent tooth decay in Tongans living on modern foods means they had 11 cavities per person, a bit less than Tokelauans had in 1999.

Weston Price's anecdote above is remarkably similar to something that happened on Tokelau in 1979. The atolls didn't receive their normal shipments of European foods for a five-month period, during which they resorted to traditional foods. Here's an excerpt from the New Zealand Herald from June 11, 1979:
What will happen the day the country runs out of fuel and the ships stop bringing those "essential" foods like sugar and flour? Tokelauans recently found out what the answer to that question was- they got healthier. One of the victims of cyclone Meli earlier this year was the passenger cargo ship Cenpac Rounder, chartered five times per year by the Tokelau Affairs office in Apia. Left high and dry on a reef South of Fiji it was badly damaged and could not be moved. So ever since January the three Tokelau atolls have not received fresh supplies. Late last month the first ship called in, chartered by the Tokelau Affairs office. The Secretary of the office said that when the ship arrived the atolls had run out of fuel. So the fishermen had returned to the traditional sail, a sight on the lagoon that had almost been forgotten, thanks to the outboard motor. There was no sugar, flour, tobacco and starch foods either- and the atoll hospitals reported a shortage of business during the enforced isolation. It was reported that the Tokelauans had been very healthy during that time and had returned to the pre-European diet of coconuts and fish. Many people lost weight and felt very much better including some of the diabetics.


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