Tag Archives: sugar

The Sugar Bugs — Legendary Creatures


“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. 

A Mouthful of Sugar

Main Piece:

Informant: So whenever like there’s like an exam or like something big that we have to do. You take a like, a teaspoon or a spoon of sugar. Put it in your-right hand? Yeah, right hand and then you… Sorry. And then you just you take it like you….

Me: You ingest the sugar straight? 

Informant: Yeah, just sugar straight up. It just supposed to be for good luck. You do it every single time I’ve done it. Ever since I was in like high school. And my mom was just like, hey, do this. And it’s like, good luck for like to be prosperous. That’s all you learn. Like I think Hindus do it a lot. My mom again taught to me and I think it’s like something big.


My informant is a 21-year-old Indian American gerontology major at USC, this folklore was told to both me and his girlfriend (my roommate) in my living room. 


My informant learned this from his mother and he still does it before every test or interview for good luck. 


When he was telling me this, I kept thinking of the saying “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”. I think sugar because for such a long time it was so hard to get, it becomes something that is saved for special occasions, so using it for important exams it a way to use some of that luck. I know in kitchen magic you’re supposed to add sugar to sweeten the spell, so it’s cool to see how sugar represents luck and good in multiple cultures. 



Informant: So… There’s these two cute little, I would almost call them little trolls. And they’re called Karius and Baktus. One has black hair, one has red hair. And they live in this little boy’s mouth… So it’s about a boy called Jens… And, it’s um… And he loooves white bread and sugar and syrup… And so… These two little trolls are kind of the, uh, the bacteria living in his mouth I guess… Or whatever is causing him to have cavities… And so the story shows them building houses and balconies and almost little towns in this boy’s mouth… And how they don’t like the toothbrush, and every time the toothbrush comes they hide ‘cause they’re scared of the toothbrush. And every time this little boy eats sugar food they get so excited and cheer him on and say yes they want sugar and syrup and white bread… Whereas if he eats, like, healthy food, they’re very upset and sad… But you know, they hammer, and do construction in this boy’s mouth to build all their houses and that hurts Jens, the little boy… And so, the story goes… He finally ends up at the dentist, and the dentist fills all his cavities. So now that the dentist has filled all the cavities, they don’t have anywhere to live… And now when the toothbrush come next time, they don’t have anywhere to hide anymore and so they’re flushed out. And so… Jens is obviously happy, but Karius and Baktus, the two little trolls, are not so happy anymore. 


Informant: It’s kind of sad actually… It’s kind of funny now that I’m talking about it, how the good is actually sad you know what I mean? 

Interviewer: So… Who tells this story? Why is it told? Where did you learn it? 

Informant: Well “Karius og Baktus” is one of the more popular stories for kids. Like almost every child has heard their parents tell it. And they have theater performances now. It’s also filmed. So, I mean, you can pretty much see any version of it… And it’s used to teach kids to eat healthy. Because in Norway we don’t eat a lot of sugar, except for on the weekends or special occasions… And we never eat white bread really… Everyone in Norway loves to bake and bakes their own bread which is like… Multigrain or whole wheat. Um… It’s just all very healthy. So parents use the story to teach kids to eat healthy so the trolls don’t, uh, build houses in their mouth and hammer and start building. Because obviously cavities hurt, you know?


“Karius og Baktus” exemplifies the pedagogical and cautionary nature of tales. Norwegians have, for many years, used this story to influence their children’s eating habits, warning against the damaging effects of too much sugar. The informant was told the tale as a child, and went on to pass it onto me, her child. Children’s minds are very impressionable, which is perhaps why children are so frequently the audience of tales. The tales are entertaining––thus retaining childrens’ attention––but are also vessels for important lessons. It is likely that tales make the lesson easier to grasp and to summarize. “Karius og Baktus,” for example, highlights each phase of developing and fixing a cavity. Rather than explain to a child time and again that sugar causes cavities and cavities hurt, a parent needs only to mention “Karius og Baktus” and the child will understand immediately what is meant. It is much easier for a child to grasp the severity of cavity-induced pain if they have something to compare it to and visualize (ex. having little trolls hammering away at your teeth). It is also likely that the entertainment factor of tales is, at least in part, what helps the lessons “stick”––what ensures they are retained. The informant remembers this tale to this day. As do I, and I surely will always associate cavities with “Karius og Baktus.” 


Book version:

Egner, Thorbjørn, et al. Karius and Baktus. Skandisk Publications, 1994.

El Familiar

The following Argentinian urban legend was told by my old high school history teacher:

“There are many urban legends in Argentina, my favorite being El Familiar.  According to the legend originating in the sugar plantation in Salta, Tuchman, and Jujuy, the Argentinian government was struggling economically which meant the sugar industry would take a big hit. However, the titans of the sugar industry found a way around their economic misfortune, by partnering with the Devil.  The Devil promised to protect the sugar industry from the failing economy in return for a yearly human sacrifice.  The sacrifice would be selected by the sugar industry and then dragged to the Devil in Hell by a decapitated black, rabid dog dragging a chain around its neck.  Legend has it, the dog still rabidly wander the sugar plantations searching for its next victim”

Analysis:  Although this is only a legend, it has increased religious practices of protection in the northern areas of Argentina.  The eminent threat of the Devil leads Argentinians to use rosaries or blessed crucifixes for protection.  This is one of my favorite pieces of folklore because I am very interested in urban legends.  Although they are never true, they have a great impact on the communities and culture around them.  In this case, the old urban legend has decreased unwanted activity in sugar plantations and increased religious faith in northern Argentina.

How to Sugar Potica

Potica is a traditional Slovenian nut roll made from walnuts, coffee, rum, lemon, and caramel served around Christmas and Easter, as a celebration of Christ. After it is baked, it must be chilled, then flipped rising-side down, sliced, and dusted with sugar on the flat side of the loaf. My grandmother always said that if you dusted the loaf on the wrong side, you offened God’s tastebuds.

My grandmother is a very religious woman, as are most member of my extended family. In fact, much of that side of my mother’s family is populated with clergy members. She was also a chef when she was younger, so she developed a devout sensibility for food. She taught my mother this sugar technique, who in turn taught me the same practice. Now potica tastes worse if it is sugared on the wrong side.