Real Food Has Curves put up a thought-provoking post today on the topic of whether sugar is “real” food, and a valid part of our daily diet. I encourage you to read it; this post started out as a response to that. When I realized how long it was getting, I decided to move it over here and not hijack his comments section.
Reading Mark’s post reminded me of a New Yorker article I read some time ago, which cited research done on sugar and the effect it has on humans. If I remember correctly (I couldn't access the full article this time around) one of the findings was that humans really have no sense of satiety when it comes to sweetness. The researchers' theory was that because sweetness is so scarcely available in the natural world (fruit, honey), humans historically had no biological need to develop a cutoff for it. When you combine that with our predisposition for sweetness, which we need in order to survive as infants, and a readily available supply of sugar and sugary food, you've got a nutritional perfect storm.
I think that moderation is the key here—moderation in what we choose to eat and how much, and (maybe more important) moderation in how we frame the nutritional discussion. We could argue forever about where to draw the lines of what is "real" and what is "processed"—but where would it get us? Would it motivate even one person who makes a habit of unhealthy nutritional choices change their behavior? And would it change the fact that some people's nutritional choices are limited by the fact that they simply don't have access to fresh food, a place to prepare food, or the necessary knowledge or skills to proceed if they acquired the first two?
I realize that portrays some extreme scenarios, and that those might not be the norm, and that this is slightly tangential to the topic. But one of the things that frustrates me in discussions of “real” food is how judgmental people can be about other people's food choices, with no attempt to understand why they've made those choices. Maybe they were forced into it by circumstances. Maybe they were raised on processed food. Maybe they just lost their job, or their house, or someone they love. Maybe they've spent their whole life being kicked by the universe. Or maybe they have self-destructive tendencies. Who knows? We don't know, and we can't know. And the real point here is that food isn't simply about nutrition, and sugar is a prime example of that. It is deeply and inextricably intertwined with emotion, personal history, family, culture, psychology....That's why we “food mavens” think about it so much, and why we all, even the most rigorously health-conscious of us, want food every now and then that has little or no nutritional value. If it was just about nutrition, we'd all be popping little pills by now, like in sci-fi stories. One of the main reasons that people eat the huge variety of foods that we do is that we enjoy eating: it is a pleasurable activity and a sensory experience. And reducing food to simply a vehicle for nutrition and sustenance not only misses the point, it negates the crucial role of food—all food, even what we think of as junk food—as a provider of comfort and joy to the human race.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I moved back to the US, and especially as I adjust to life in a part of the country that has most of the stereotypical factors which contribute to obesity. People don’t walk anywhere. The main source of food is big-box stores and supermarkets; I have yet to find any local producers. The traditional Midwestern diet is heavily concentrated on salt, fat, white flour, and sugar. Restaurants serve absolutely enormous portions, and try to refill your giant cup of soda when it’s barely half-empty. I see a lot of overweight and obese people as I make my daily rounds. (But then I also see a lot of skinny people who are clearly neglecting their health in various ways.)
I think sugar is the culprit du jour for our society's weight problems, with a particular focus on high fructose corn syrup. I even wrote a blog post about this a while back, and I haven't changed my mind: pointing the finger at any one thing as the explanation for our society's health issues is a reductionist oversimplification. If there was a simple solution to the problem of obesity and its associated health impacts, we would have figured it out by now. I eat sugar in moderation, and I give it to my five-year-old daughter, also in moderation. I accept that it has little nutritional value on its own, but the foods we eat it in—mostly homemade—do have some, and are valuable in other ways. Man and woman do not live by whole grains, high fiber, and plant-based foods alone, or at least not the ones in my house. Life is too short not to eat cupcakes once in a while.