Jaw Development During Adolescence
Beginning at about age 11, the skull undergoes a growth spurt. This corresponds roughly with the growth spurt in the rest of the body, with the precise timing depending on gender and other factors. Growth continues until about age 17, when the last skull sutures cease growing and slowly fuse. One of these sutures runs along the center of the maxillary arch (the arch in the upper jaw), and contributes to the widening of the upper arch*:
This growth process involves MGP and osteocalcin, both vitamin K-dependent proteins. At the end of adolescence, the jaws have reached their final size and shape, and should be large enough to accommodate all teeth without crowding. This includes the third molars, or wisdom teeth, which will erupt shortly after this period.
Reduced Food Toughness Correlates with Malocclusion in Humans
When Dr. Robert Corruccini published his seminal paper in 1984 documenting rapid changes in occlusion in cultures around the world adopting modern foodways and lifestyles (see this post), he presented the theory that occlusion is influenced by chewing stress. In other words, the jaws require good exercise on a regular basis during growth to develop normal-sized bones and muscles. Although Dr. Corruccini wasn't the first to come up with the idea, he has probably done more than anyone else to advance it over the years.
Dr. Corruccini's paper is based on years of research in transitioning cultures, much of which he conducted personally. In 1981, he published a study of a rural Kentucky community in the process of adopting the modern diet and lifestyle. Their traditional diet was predominantly dried pork, cornbread fried in lard, game meat and home-grown fruit, vegetables and nuts. The older generation, raised on traditional foods, had much better occlusion than the younger generation, which had transitioned to softer and less nutritious modern foods. Dr. Corruccini found that food toughness correlated with proper occlusion in this population.
In another study published in 1985, Dr. Corruccini studied rural and urban Bengali youths. After collecting a variety of diet and socioeconomic information, he found that food toughness was the single best predictor of occlusion. Individuals who ate the toughest food had the best teeth. The second strongest association was a history of thumb sucking, which was associated with a higher prevalence of malocclusion**. Interestingly, twice as many urban youths had a history of thumb sucking as rural youths.
Not only do hunter-gatherers eat tough foods on a regular basis, they also often use their jaws as tools. For example, the anthropologist and arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson described how the Inuit chewed their leather boots and jackets nearly every day to soften them or prepare them for sewing. This is reflected in the extreme tooth wear of traditional Inuit and other hunter-gatherers.
Soft Food Causes Malocclusion in Animals
Now we have a bunch of associations that may or may not represent a cause-effect relationship. However, Dr. Corruccini and others have shown in a variety of animal models that soft food can produce malocclusion, independent of nutrition.
The first study was conducted in 1951. Investigators fed rats typical dry chow pellets, or the same pellets that had been crushed and softened in water. Rats fed the softened food during growth developed narrow arches and small mandibles (lower jaws) relative to rats fed dry pellets.
Other research groups have since repeated the findings in rodents, pigs and several species of primates (squirrel monkeys, baboons, and macaques). Animals typically developed narrow arches, a central aspect of malocclusion in modern humans. Some of the primates fed soft foods showed other malocclusions highly reminiscent of modern humans as well, such as crowded incisors and impacted third molars. These traits are exceptionally rare in wild primates.
One criticism of these studies is that they used extremely soft foods that are softer than the typical modern diet. This is how science works: you go for the extreme effects first. Then, if you see something, you refine your experiments. One of the most refined experiments I've seen so far was published by Dr. Daniel E. Leiberman of Harvard's anthropology department. They used the rock hyrax, an animal with a skull that bears some similarities to the human skull***.
Instead of feeding the animals hard food vs. mush, they fed them raw and dried food vs. cooked. This is closer to the situation in humans, where food is soft but still has some consistency. Hyrax fed cooked food showed a mild jaw underdevelopment reminiscent of modern humans. The underdeveloped areas were precisely those that received less strain during chewing.
Implications and Practical Considerations
Besides the direct implications for the developing jaws and face, I think this also suggests that physical stress may influence the development of other parts of the skeleton. Hunter-gatherers generally have thicker bones, larger joints, and more consistently well-developed shoulders and hips than modern humans. Physical stress is part of the human evolutionary template, and is probably critical for the normal development of the skeleton.
I think it's likely that food consistency influences occlusion in humans. In my opinion, it's a good idea to regularly include tough foods in a child's diet as soon as she is able to chew them properly and safely. This probably means waiting at least until the deciduous (baby) molars have erupted fully. Jerky, raw vegetables and fruit, tough cuts of meat, nuts, dry sausages, dried fruit, chicken bones and roasted corn are a few things that should stress the muscles and bones of the jaws and face enough to encourage normal development.
* These data represent many years of measurements collected by Dr. Arne Bjork, who used metallic implants in the maxilla to make precise measurements of arch growth over time in Danish youths. The graph is reproduced from the book A Synopsis of Craniofacial Growth, by Dr. Don M. Ranly. Data come from Dr. Bjork's findings published in the book Postnatal Growth and Development of the Maxillary Complex. You can see some of Dr. Bjork's data in the paper "Sutural Growth of the Upper Face Studied by the Implant Method" (free full text).
** I don't know if this was statistically significant at p less than 0.05. Dr. Corruccini uses a cutoff point of p less than 0.01 throughout the paper. He's a tough guy when it comes to statistics!