Evolution produces US sweet craving

Columnist Sarah Sanders warns readers against mass-produced sweet snacks.

Columnist Sarah Sanders warns readers against mass-produced sweet snacks.

Like many Americans and people across the world, I have a sweet tooth. In fact, I literally have a tooth that tingles when I eat something high in sugar, like the bites of a vegan gob cookie I have in my mouth right now.

Hundreds of years ago, this trait served a function – rather, the sugar like that in gob cookies did more for us than just make us smile.

Evolutionists propose that because sweet food sources were often high in calories, our brains evolved to crave this taste. This seemed to work for our benefit half a millennium ago.Screen shot 2010-11-02 at 12.01.47 AM

Food was scarce, so when our tongues detected sweetness, something in our brains triggered us to eat as much of the sweetness as we could. Thus, the evolution of the sweet tooth.

But food is no longer scarce. United States’ society has become known for its abundance of food – the focus on overeating instead of evolutionary fitness.

Consequently, we’re starting to witness the effects of this evolutionary trait that hasn’t quite caught up with the mass-producing food industry. It has become quite a cause for concern; to Michelle Obama, this issue is top priority.

A study carried out by the Temple Center for Obesity Research and Education concluded that children in urban environments like Philadelphia are more susceptible to malnutrition because of the food bought at corner stores.

For example, elementary- and middle-school-aged children in Philadelphia neighborhoods with a high populations of ethnic minorities will visit a corner store as many as five times per week.

Purchases consist of energy-dense, i.e., calorie-dense, foods, such as sodas, chips, candy, et cetera, amounting to an average of 356 calories per day from the store. The appeal stems from both their inexpensiveness and sweetness.

This phenomenon is relevant to Temple, not only because it provides for great research material, but also because this kind of behavior is not restricted to young urban populations. In June 2009, Newsweek magazine pointed out that “an increase in sugary beverages [alone] has translated into a two-thirds to three-fourths increase in overall calorie consumption over the last 20 years.”

No wonder the first lady is worried about America’s unhealthy growth. We are addicted to sweetness, no matter what form it takes in our food.

The chemical breakdown of corn, for example, represents a sweetener similar to sugar. It’s also way cheaper than sugar (sucrose), so food production companies often use corn-based ingredients to sweeten their food.

If you take the time to check out the ingredients list on most products in 7-Eleven, you’ll notice high fructose corn syrup is a major ingredient. So if you think about it, the soda and candy you bought one night to get you through a midterm was actually just corn with a side of corn.

While this is especially alarming for environmental reasons, the use of high fructose corn syrup is not so dangerous to our health compared to other forms of sugar. In fact, our bodies process these sugars – glucose, fructose and sucrose – in very similar ways.

The problem is, as you can see in any corner store aisle, added sweeteners like HFCS have become extremely prevalent, even in naturally sweet items like applesauce.

Why on earth would big food corporations want to exploit this evolutionary addiction to sweets that has made rates of diabetes and obesity skyrocket?

We pay for it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone past the Auntie Anne’s in the Student Center and gotten a whiff of the cinnamon sugar mingling with the toasted almond, only to turn right back around for just a nibble, i.e., a whole pretzel. And I usually end up with a toothache or a stomachache with a side of guilt.

It’s not even the threat of disease or malnutrition that gets to me. It’s the fact that I know how this sweet tooth works and yet I can’t help but give into it.

There are ways we can channel this addiction, however, into something a little healthier. First, avoid added sugars as much as possible. These can range from the infamous HFCS to cane sugar to honey.

Second, try eating foods that are naturally sweet more often: apples, raisins, carrots, beets and blueberries. And finally, for those who just need a quick fix to get on with their lives, health specialist Dr. Andrew Weil recommends a spoonful of pure maple syrup (as in that which actually comes from trees) or a bite of dark chocolate.

As I realize the holiday season is approaching, I figured a classic cookie recipe would serve well. Eat guiltlessly, readers!

Sarah Sanders can be reached at sarah.sanders@temple.edu.

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