We now crave white teeth – the whiter, the better. The demand for teeth-whitening services has increased exponentially over the years, and those of us who can’t afford it have to resort to solutions like brushing our teeth with baking soda, which may or may not be harmful to our teeth.

This wasn’t always the case, though. There were points in history, throughout the world, when black teeth were a status symbol – and it remains the case with some smaller, more isolated tribes in the Malay Peninsular.

During the Old Elizabethan era, for example, black teeth were a sign of aristocracy, and some claim even Queen Elizabeth herself had a fine set of black teeth. Black teeth, it seems, rose to prominence when it was discovered that sugar – an elite, imported ingredient was found to cause black teeth. (Look out for sugar!) As only the wealthy could afford sugar, teethed blacked through excessive consumption of sugar reflected one’s economic station in life.

Like the English aristocracy, the Japanese nobility, too, was fond of black teeth – though this fad came to Japan much earlier, perhaps during the 3rd, 4th or 5th centuries. That’s why Japanese paintings of that era always depict their women with black teeth, contrasted with an exceedingly white face. It is said that the black teeth fad originated from China, in an (unverified) hypothesis that blackened teeth contributed to good health. This means, of course, that the Chinese, likewise, must have had black teeth.

In many places in the world today, such as in Vietnam and in some remote tribes of Malaysia, people still blacken their teeth on purpose, either by lacquering their teeth or chewing betel to stain their teeth – and of course, to enjoy the sensation it brings!