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Healthy eating, Roman style: Ancient Pompeiians had surprisingly good teeth

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The ancient Romans may not have had access to modern dentistry, but they did boast strong, healthy teeth thanks to the absence of one key ingredient from their diet: sugar.

Researchers in Pompeii, Italy, working on the remains of those killed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD have found the ancient Romans to have been in surprisingly good dental health.

“They had really good teeth — they ate a diet that contained few sugars, and was high in fruit and vegetables,” orthodontist Elisa Vanacore said at a press conference last week. What the Pompeiians’ ate resembles what is now known as the Mediterranean diet, which has been credited with higher live expectancy in southern Europe.

The team are in the process of performing CAT scans on 86 plaster casts containing the petrified corpses of Pompeii victims.

The almost 2,000-year-old remains are stored in human-shaped plaster casts in order to preserve them and allow them to be moved easily.

“(The process) will reveal much about the victims: their age, sex, what they ate, what diseases they had and what class of society they belonged to. This will be a great step forward in our knowledge of antiquity,” said Massimo Osanna, archaeological superintendent of Pompeii.

White gold… or poison?

The low levels of sugar in the Pompeiians’ diet meant they had far fewer dental problems than modern humans.

High sugar consumption has been linked to tooth decay, obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

While we have always enjoyed sweet foods such as fruit or honey, and some historical figures — such as Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I — had famously bad teeth, sugar as an additive remained an expensive treat for centuries, not becoming widespread until the 16th century with the establishment of plantations in the West Indies and Americas.

Sugar really exploded in the 18th century, by 1750, it had surpassed grain as the most valuable commodity in Europe, making up a fifth of all imports to the continent.

Today, global consumption of sugar is forecast to hit 173.4 million metric tons, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.