Tate & Lyle
Carst and Walker

Sugar: the evolution of a forbidden fruit

SWEETNESS was meant to be irresistible.

We are born with a sweet tooth. Babies drink in sugar with their mother’s milk. Sweetness represents an instant energy boost, a fuel that kept our ancestors going in a harsher world where taste buds evolved to distinguish health-giving ripeness and freshness from the dangers of bitter, sour, toxic foods. Sugar gives us drug-like pleasures – lab rats deprived of their sugar-water fix exhibit classic signs of withdrawal. When things are going well, we blissfully say, “Life is sweet.”

And now sweetness is linked with death and disease. Sugars are themselves toxins, some researchers suggest, that cause obesity, diabetes, hyper- tension and Alzheimer’s disease. Sugar has joined salt and fat on the list of dietary evils. Governments and health experts are urging people to cut back their daily intake.
How did we get ourselves into this unhappy state? Anything sweet was once considered precious and exploited with the kind of ingenuity you’d expect when brute survival was elevated into pure pleasure – through sap from the maple tree and the date palm, cooked-down pulp from carrots and beets, pressed syrup from figs and sorghum, raisiny grapes, regurgitated flower nectar transposed from nature’s tree-stumps to the beekeeper’s hives and, of course, the processed juice from the reedy sugar cane.

Our modern moralising about sugar’s destructive nutritional emptiness takes on meaning only in a culture where appetite has been disconnected from physical labour, most consumption is surplus to our needs, and sweetness is segregated into a separate world of danger, indulgence and anxiety.

Today, when we denounce sugar, we are defying our nature. Sex was once the classic example of the good thing gone wrong – a gift of the gods ruined by religion and psychiatry. Now the road to excess leads to the supermarket shelf and the fast-food drive-through: Sugar has become the forbidden fruit, the momentary pleasure infused with a lifetime of guilt.

Refined cane sugar has emerged as our dominant sweetener today, but only after long centuries of experimentation, exploration, imperialistic subjugation, industrialization and marketplace manipulation.

In the beginning, sweetness was unmistakably precious, combining properties regarded as both sacred and health-giving…..

The fear of sugar

But in a society where the production of food, drinks and snacks is outsourced, large amounts of hidden sugars permeate our ready-made meals from start to finish as sweeteners, preservatives and flavour enhancers. Once a medicine, sugar is now a pervasive dietary placebo.

Our fear of sugar is as much a fear of the unknown – we’ve lost control, and it’s easy to trace our real and imagined nutritional terrors to bigger forces that prey on our appetites and desires.

Someone else must be responsible for our dietary ennui – governments and multinational corporations are the preferred targets of sugar’s modern critics, who know there’s nothing to be gained by blaming the friendly co-worker who shares a daily box of Timbits or the celebrity chef who plies the young and hip with retro scoops of soft-serve ice cream flavoured with sugary cereal milk.

Our awareness of sugar’s ills has been heightened, our anxieties now find their targets, but our sense of pleasure is badly compromised – it all sounds so recognizably modern. “Normally in human history, taste told you what was bad for you by being bitter and inedible,” says Harvey Levenstein, emeritus professor of history at McMaster University and the author of Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat.. “But now with modern nutritional science, there’s almost a glee in exposing the pleasurable things as bad.”….

The Globe and Mail: Read the full essay


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