Not so sweet | Dish | Indy Week

Special Issues » Dish

Not so sweet

Sweeteners used to be rare condiments. Now they're a commodity, and we eat 147 pounds a year, each.



Tastes change, as do eating habits. Right under our noses. Sugar (or sugars, as we'll see) is doubly invisible. The crystalline white stuff is a commodity, cheap, readily available and called for by the cups full in our desserts, preserves and other sweet-toned recipes. A staple, always in the pantry. If we want to imagine what five pounds feels like, we heft an invisible bag of sugar. Invisible because it's omnipresent.

Then there's the truly invisible sugar; the sugar in processed foods, soft drinks and sports drinks. Omnipresent too, but blended in and hiding under various names: high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, corn sweetener, invert sugar, molasses, brown sugar.

And that's the recent change, the change that increased sugar consumption in the United States 30 percent in 35 years. The change that meant that sucrose went from almost the sole source of added sugar to minority source. Dietary changes like this, as well as more long-term changes, are never just simple choices to indulge a taste, new or elaborated. The vast superstructure of our eating habits is based on forces far removed from considerations of gastronomy or nutrition.

What forces? Well, early on, the economic logic of the Portuguese and British empires, the rise of industrialization and the need for expanding markets. And, somewhat more lately, Earl Butz and the vast government subsidies that underlie our agricultural system. And the economic logic of the American empire.

Let's go back in time, pre-Domino, when there wasn't commodity sugar. Medieval Europe had sugar, introduced by the Arabs during the reign of their empire, but in tiny quantities, for the wealthy, and used only as medicine and condiment. Then Columbus, on his second voyage, brought sugarcane to plant in the New World. From that beginning, sugar went on to become the first industrial food commodity.

Getting the sugar out of cane is a complex, multi-stage procedure that has always had an industrial feel to it. Sugar had always been one of the few food stuffs that was never made at home, but the incipient industrial revolution, and the availability of slave labor in the New World colonies, led to huge productive capacity (of both sugar and rum). This coincided, if I can blur a century or so, with the arrival in the Old World of coffee, chocolate and tea (our favorite medicinal foods) and with a laboring class with just enough disposable income to buy sugar at its new non-luxury price.

The 18th century saw sucrose's arrival as a commodity for the masses. Sugar became England's leading import, with annual per capita consumption going from 4.5 pounds at the beginning of the 18th century to nearly 20 pounds at the beginning of the next. Another century of industrialization and the figure was 88 pounds for England and 66 pounds for the United States.

This was the initial creation of a massive sweet tooth. Sugar didn't replace other sweeteners; tastes changed when conditions of production were right and the marketing persuasive. It was also the initial creation of the idea of mass consumption; that the role of the workers was not just to work, but to consume.

By 1966 "added sweeteners" had reached an annual per capita figure, in the United States, of 113 pounds. You would think that the rate of growth would then continue to slow. You'd be wrong. You'd be forgetting Earl Butz and the Nixon administration. You'd be forgetting that we now consume 147 pounds of sweeteners a year, each. And now, 55 percent of it is HFCS, high fructose corn syrup.

What did Butz do? His job. Food prices were high (relatively speaking), farm income was way down, and both consumers and farmers were unhappy. Butz' solution was to urge the planting of more and more corn (and soy). What to do with all this corn? First of all, subsidize the farmers growing it (now they're happy, though presumably urban taxpayers wouldn't be, if they were let in on this shell game), and then create markets. Make trade deals that allow for new and massive farm exports (by permitting the import of cheap palm oil), increase feedlot production (cheap beef), and get lucky.

Scientists had figured out an easy way to convert corn syrup to a substance very high in fructose. (It was easy to break corn syrup down into glucose and maltose, but that product was less sweet than sucrose. Finding an enzyme to convert the glucose to fructose was the trick.) Fructose, a simple sugar like glucose, tastes much sweeter than sucrose (table sugar). It did great things to the shelf life of processed foods. Once the technology got going, in the late 1970s, the processed food industry went happily wild. HFCS was cheaper than sucrose, easily available and had many industrial virtues. Coca-Cola, and everybody else, made the switch and made money. Now, 30 years or so later, HFCS and its relatives are everywhere.

"Sweetened with concentrated fruit juice" sounds nice; sounds healthier than sugar. "Pure white sugar," particularly, sounds so industrial. Well, concentrated fruit juice is water and fructose and a few minor things. And fructose is just another sugar. And sucrose actually tastes better. In fact, things may be grimmer than that. Let's do the science for a moment. Sucrose, good old table sugar, product of cane (or sugar beet) is a disaccharide, meaning it is composed of two sugar molecules joined together. Our bodies break it down into its component sugars, fructose and glucose. Glucose is the sugar that our bodies directly use; it circulates in the blood as the energy source for our cells and when the metabolism of glucose goes awry in your body, you've got diabetes.

So what's wrong with replacing sucrose with fructose in our diets, the political economy of it all aside? There are very few studies on this issue; there are a few that point to trouble. Fructose, particularly when it isn't 50-50 with glucose (as it is when we metabolize sucrose), hangs around to end up being processed in the liver. And that mechanism seems to produce triglyceride spikes in our blood. There are also hints at a diabetes connection.

But even if the major shift in our diet toward fructose isn't troublesome insofar as it's fructose we're shifting towards, the sheer magnitude of sugar consumption is. One standard recommendation for sugar consumption is that it be kept under 10 percent of total calories. That seems to be what people were doing 30 years ago in the United States. That's a can or two of Coke. Furthermore, those bizarrely large per capita consumption figures are actually low for teens and pre-teens. That so-called "adult-onset" diabetes is no longer a statistical anomaly in kids, and may be partially caused by obesity itself, partly by the disproportionate number of sugar calories ingested, and, maybe, partly by HFCS.

At the personal level, it's obvious what to do, just as it always has been. Don't eat junk, don't be fooled by misleading labeling. From a public health perspective it is far more complicated. Most kids don't get to have that choice, or, if they do, don't have the training or resources to implement it. School lunches are dismal and many schools have sold their souls--and their kids' bodies--by becoming Coke dealers.

More profoundly, as the history of sugar illustrates, we seem to need over-consumption as our economic pump. If we all ate 10 percent fewer calories, shifted to fruits, vegetables, free-range meats and kept our sugar consumption under 200 calories a day, the economy would collapse. We need some sugar for our bowl, but we might eventually have to figure out a better way to have a working economy.

Add a comment