“The Sugar Bugs were something that I thought was a thing growing up. My parents would be like, ‘You need to brush your teeth. Watch out for the Sugar Bugs!’
“And so I always imagined that if I didn’t brush my teeth and I went to sleep, there would be bugs crawling all over my teeth at night and eating my teeth. They would come from sugar, from candy or some other junk food eaten. They would destroy my teeth and give me a cavity or something like that.
“To prevent them from coming and destroying my teeth, I’d brush my teeth at night before bed, making sure I brush everything out. When I spat in the sink afterwards, I would see the bugs in the sink. If there were particles of food or even the foam of the toothpaste, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s the Sugar Bugs.’
“And so by brushing your teeth, you could avoid the Sugar Bugs. And if you didn’t brush your teeth, you would get cavities from the bugs in your mouth that would eat up your teeth. “
AH is a 21 year-old college student from Houston, Texas. She grew up in what is sometimes described as an ‘ingredient household,’ a family with very little junk food or sweets in the house.
AH learned about the Sugar Bugs from her mom at a young age as part of teeth-brushing. AH’s mom said she also learned about them from her own parents. AH said while she only truly believed in them up until first or second grade, she still thinks about them and the imagery they provoke.
“I was actually just thinking about the Sugar Bugs on my teeth as I indulged myself in an entire chocolate bunny at 6:30 p.m.,” she said. “Sometimes I definitely still think about it. I’m like, ‘I need to brush my teeth.’ Not necessarily because I’m like, ‘Oh my God, little bugs are crawling on my teeth.’ But sometimes I literally think that.”
AH also reflected on how the fear of the Sugar Bugs may have contributed to negative views of food, specifically junk food.
“They just reinforced ideas that were being directly or indirectly communicated from my parents,” she said, referencing the belief that junk food is unhealthy. “If you did have junk food, which is so bad for you, you really have to do this or else you’re going to have horrible consequences.”
The Legend of the Sugar Bugs appears at a liminal moment in childhood development when a kid is beginning to learn certain self-care tasks, which, in addition to teeth-brushing, include bathing, showering, hand washing, etc. These tasks are eventually completed independently but often require parental urging. This is where the utility of the legend comes in.
The Sugar Bugs co-opt the available framework of real bugs, which are understood as gross and icky and certainly not something one would want inside one’s mouth. Yet these creatures are somehow different from real bugs, as they have a certain mythical quality to them endowed by the question of their truth value: Did you or did you not see a Sugar Bug in your toothpaste when you spit it out?
AH mentioned seeing food particles as Sugar Bugs. This memorate was her interpretation of a personal experience into an existing legendary structure.
The legend is acted out on a nightly basis as the child brushes their teeth for the sole purpose, as they are told, of getting rid of Sugar Bugs. The repetition of an action tied to a legend is likely to increase belief in the legend, or at least an adherence to the teeth-brushing, bug-cleansing ritual.
The legend comes with a moral: Sugar is bad for you, and teeth brushing is good. There is also the element of fear as these Sugar Bugs can supposedly cause one harm.
A brief Google search yields references to the Sugar Bugs in children’s books and on pediatric dentistry websites. It appears to be an ‘innocent’ children’s legend employed to encourage cleanliness and independence around ages four to seven.
However, AH noted how the fear of Sugar Bugs does not necessarily disappear for those who were raised in a household that held very negative views of junk food and candy. While the belief in Sugar Bugs as actual creatures may fade, the fear associated with junk food may remain, only translated into the framework of body dysmorphia or binge eating.
“If I just eat all the candy in one sitting, then I just brush my teeth really well once,” AH joked.