(Originally posted on Sensorium, December 17 2013)
In an earlier post (“Twelve Things I Didn’t Know about Taste”), I wrote that, apparently, cats can’t taste sweetness.
For humans, however, the desire for sweet is powerful and complex.
We have receptors for sweetness even in our pancreas and intestines. Drewnowski et al. write that signals from these receptors trigger a “strong pleasure response” in the brain, similar to the addictive effects of drugs. Sweetness can also reduce the experience of pain (p. 2S of 7S); many of us already know that sweetness can soothe and comfort (5S of 7S).
In fact, so strong is the desire for sweetness that the cultivation and marketing of sugar built vast colonial enterprises in tropical lands, largely dependent on slave labour, and hastening technological and industrial change.
The political force of this drive is captured in the title of Sidney W Mintz’s 1985 study, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.
As he succinctly puts it:
probably no single food commodity on the world market has been subjected to so much politicking as sugar … Sucrose was a source of bureaucratic, as well as mercantile and industrial, wealth. (1985, p. 185)
Beardsworth and Keil note that sugar was worth its weight in silver in medieval Burgundy (p. 244)—and therefore considered an expensive, exotic spice, only for the wealthy.
But because of its extensive cultivation, it had by the 1870s become cheap enough that white-bread-and-jam and over-sweetened tea were common working-class sources of calories (Mintz 1985, p. 126, p. 129).
A survey of research into sweetness indicates that our pleasure in sweetness is, probably, a universal, innate human trait (Drewnowski et al., 4S of 7S).
It begins early in our lives. Fetuses react to sucrose (Mintz 1997, p. 362), and it seems that newborns demonstrate a preference for sweetened liquids (Bearsworth and Keil p. 243).
Across many cultures, youngsters’ preference for intense sweetness abates only in adolescence (Drewnowski et al., 2S of 7S).
In past times, the desire for sweetness was satisfied by honey or fruit. Today’s cravings usually lead to consumption of technologically processed products such as sugar from cane or sugar beets, glucose, or corn syrup. Chemical artificial sweeteners are also widely used.
Despite the ubiquity of humans’ craving for sweetness, scientists do not really understand its purpose.
One theory is that sugars are desirable because they are a source of energy (Bearsworth and Keil, p. 243). The Drewnowski study explains it:
Our sensory systems evolved to detect and prefer the once-rare energy-rich foods that taste sweet. These responses are intensified during childhood, which may reflect the nutritional need for attracting children to energy-producing foods that are high in sugars, minerals, and vitamins … (3s of 7S)
The same study reveals that, on an individual level, not everyone is the same. Different people have differing abilities to detect sweet tastes. It is not surprising, then, that individuals display varying preferences for levels of sweetness, as well as for the sources chosen to satisfy their desire for sweetness. Men prefer higher levels of sweetness than women (4S of 7S).
And different cultures develop different taste profiles. Martin Lindstrom writes:
Americans are born loving sugar—childhood sweets tuned our taste buds early on—but “bitter” is a taste many of us learn to accommodate throughout our lives, and is generally appreciated far more outside the United States. (p. 35)
Mintz says that the per capita consumption of sugar in the United States, between 1880 and 1884, was 38 pounds.
He claims that the US had the world’s second-highest level of consumption, surpassed only by that in the United Kingdom where, in 1887, per capita consumption was 60.9 pounds and rising (p. 188).
The difficulties of establishing accurate statistics for sugar consumption still cause debate today. See this research article, published in BMC Public Health in July 2013.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that other writers believe that Australians were, for many years, the largest per capita consumers of sugar.
Peter Griggs states that Australia’s 1882 per capita consumption was a whopping 35.7 kilos (78.7 pounds) of sugar, “more than in any other part of the world” (p. 142). By the mid 1900s, that annual consumption had increased to 51 kilos per person (p. 143).
Just how Australians might possibly consume so much sugar is illustrated by a 1939 writer’s observations of North Queensland. Paul McGuire recorded that “it was almost a matter of decency to fill one’s teacup with lumps of sugar: one for the grower, one for the mill, one for luck and one for over-production”.
While the overall intake of sugar appears to be falling (although this is debated), it was still the case in 2005 that Australia’s per capita consumption of soft drinks placed it in the top ten countries in the world.
As I write this, Christmas is approaching—a festival of sweetness in many forms, from pavlovas, candy canes, chocolate Santas, trifles and rum balls, to the glazed and burnished leg of ham.
Of course it’s excessive—but then—as Beardsworth and Keil point out—there is often “moral ambivalence associated with sugar and confectionery” (p. 250).
And Paul Rozin writes that many cultures share the perception that “sweetness” is “sinful”: like sex, eating is an “intimate act”, he says, and “anything that is extremely pleasurable, and that includes sex and sweetness, must be bad” (p. 100).
So although “sweetness” has connotations of childlike innocence (“Sweet sixteen …”), too much sweetness can be dangerous. The term “death by chocolate” brings everything together: sweetness, pleasure, desire, excess, danger, the sin of gluttony.
The phrase is so common that it has its own Wikipedia entry, and my Google search even uncovered this British Telegraph story about a Nazi plot to kill Winston Churchill with an exploding bar of chocolate!
I guess the sinfulness and danger of sweetness give a sharp edge to indulgence … which only enhances its seductive power.
“Are they safe or what?” This question about artificial sweetners is addressed in this 10-minute YouTube clip called “The Science of Sweetness”.
And, if you have a really strong stomach, here is a confronting clip from the 1974 art film Sweet Movie, directed by Yugoslavian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev. A couple makes love in a bed of white sugar on a boat filled with lollypops; the man is then stabbed by the woman. This clip really is disturbing, so make sure you are prepared for that if you decide to watch it. (The film was banned in many countries.) While the film was a critique of both Western values and Communism, what is interesting here is the conjunction of sweetness, excess, danger and death. It is a strange, non-erotic, anti-sensual sex scene; the white sugar itself looks gritty and painful, but it does create unforgettable images. I initially saw the film in the early 1980s, and the memory remains strong thirty years later.
- Alan Beardsworth and Teresa Keil, 1997, Sociology on the Menu: An Invitation to the Study of Food and Society, Routledge, London and New York.
- Adam Drewnowski, Julie A Mennella, Susan L Johnson, and France Bellisle, 2012, “Sweetness and Food Preference”, Journal of Nutrition, May 9, Supplement, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3738223/pdf/nut1421142S.pdf, accessed December 9 2013.
- Peter Griggs, 2006, “ ‘A Natural Part of Life’: The Australian Sugar Industry’s Campaign to Reverse Declining Australian Sugar Consumption, 1980-1995”, Journal of Australian Studies, no. 87, pp. 141-162.
- Martin Lindstrom, 2005, Brand Sense: Sensory Secrets behind the Stuff We Buy, Free Press: Simon & Schuster, New York.
- Paul McGuire, 1939, Australian Journey, William Heineman, London, p. 191, qtd Griggs p. 141.
- Sidney W Mintz, 1985, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, Penguin, New York.
- Sidney W Mintz, 1997, “Time, Sugar, and Sweetness”, in Food and Culture: A Reader, ads Carole Gounihan and Penny Van Esterik, Routledge, New York, pp. 357-369.
- Paul Rozin, 1987, “Sweetness, Sensuality, Sin, Safety, and Socialisation: Some Speculations”, in Sweetness: International Life Sciences Institute Symposium, ed J Dobbing, Springer-Verlag, London, pp. 99-111.