the sweetness, stupid... Last week I’ve added two
more chapters to the website, ‘country living’ and ‘gardening’.
The inaugural page for the ‘county living’ was meat
curing and smoking, a skill well practiced and perfected in my family
for many generations. So, I really was in no need to consult the
literature on the subject but I did it anyway, just to see what the rest
of the world is doing. As I should expect, but I didn’t, it complicated
my task. I can easily ignore the artificial preserva-tives suggested in
the literature, we never used them, but sugar is a bit confusing (we never
used sugar either). They say that the sugar included in the cure is used
as food by the lactobacilli and, in addition to reducing further the
ability of the spoilage bacteria to grow, accounts for the tangy flavor of
some cured products. It might be so, but I’m suspicious on the necessity
of sugar curing. The foodstuff known as sugar delivers a primary taste
sensation of sweetness; originally a luxury, it eventually became
sufficiently cheap and common to influence what we eat. In the US, sugar
has become increasingly evident in food products, as more food
manufacturers add sugar or high fructose corn syrup to a wide variety of
consumables. Candy bars, soft drinks, chips, snacks, fruit juice, peanut
butter, soups, ice cream, jams, jellies, yogurt, and many breads have
added sugars. Do you notice all those reports on obesity and diabetes?
sugarloaf was the traditional form, a tall gently-tapering cylinder
with a conical top, in which refined sugar was exported from the
Caribbean and eastern Brazil from 17th to 19th centuries; pieces
were broken off with special iron sugar-cutters, shaped like large
pliers with sharp blades.
most other warm-bladed creatures, humans have inherited a preference
for energy-dense foods, a preference reflected in the sweet tooth
shared by most mammals. Natural selection predisposed us to the
taste of sugar and fat (its texture as well as taste) because sugars
and fats offer the most energy (which is what a calorie is) per
bite. Yet in nature - in whole foods - we seldom encounter these
nutrients in the concentrations we now find them in in processed
foods. You won’t find a fruit with anywhere near the amount of
fructose in a soda, or a piece of animal flesh with quite as much
fat as a chicken nugget.
begin to see why processing foods is such a good strategy for
getting people to eat more of them. The power of food science lies
in its ability to break foods down into their nutrient parts and
then reassemble them in specific ways that, in effect, push our
evolutionary buttons, fooling the omnivore’s inherited food
selection system. Add fat or sugar to anything and it’s going to
taste better on the tongue of an animal that natural selection has
wired to seek out energy-dense foods. Animal studies prove the
point: rats presented with solutions of pure sucrose or tubs of pure
lard - goodies they seldom encounter in nature - will gorge
themselves sick. Whatever nutritional wisdom the rats are born with
breaks down when faced with sugars and fats in unnatural
concentrations - nutrients ripped from their natural content, which
is to say, from those things we call foods. Food systems can cheat
by exaggerating their energy density, tricking a sensory apparatus
that evolved to deal with markedly less dense whole foods.
is amped-up energy density of processed foods that gets omnivores
like us into trouble.
Pollan: The omnivore’s dilemma, A natural history of four meals,
Penguin Books, New York, 2006.