Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sugar and Obesity in America

I still remember my flight back to America after four months in Tokyo. It was a United flight, and it followed four months of eating a predominantly Asian diet. United, of course, served "American" food on the way back to the States (as a matter of pride, I suppose), and the dinner was accompanied by a rather large block of chocolate cake. After having a few bites of whatever entree they had that evening (I remember some meat-like product covered with a rather thick gravy that obscured the blandness of the overcooked vegetables, but was undercut by a saltiness that can only be equated with taking a sip of Dead Sea water), I gave up and took a bite of the cake. It was so overwhelmingly saccharine that I could only muster a bite or two, at which point I resigned to hunger for the duration of the flight. Yet I was intrigued - the cake was no longer even a food item, but instead a vehicle for ingesting massive amounts of high-fructose corn syrup and other sugars. How had I not noticed before?

It was then that I realized my taste for sweets had changed significantly since living in Tokyo. Everything in America was suddenly cloyingly sweet. Salad dressings ruined my salads. Coffee shop pastries were too rich and sweet to eat anymore. Not to mention soft drinks, which I had for the most part stopped consuming years before, but was now somewhat disgusted by the notion of a 20 oz. Coke. Sugar and sweetness seemingly permeated all foods in America. Even my company, which is a paragon of healthy cooking and uses mostly local and organic ingredients, was guilty of the same transgressions - everywhere, in sauces, smoothies, health "shots", sweeteners were added (in their defense, they often added "agave", which is supposed to have a lower glycemic index than HFCS, but plain ol' sugar was added plenty as well). Everywhere I went, I asked myself the same question - why was everything so damn sweet in America?

I have a theory about sweetness in foods. I believe that we can adapt rather quickly to significantly lower levels of sweetness, and enjoy the foods just as much (and probably more). It's kind of like wearing orange-tinted ski goggles - at first, all the colors you see are off, but your eyes quickly adapt to their new spectrum, and you can distinguish colors just fine (until you take the goggles off and everything appears blue). With sweetness, I think if the top half of the sweetness spectrum was just lopped off, and all foods were at much lower sweetness levels, we would quickly adapt - the whole scale would essentially be compressed.

I visited a Starbucks in the center of Tokyo one day and ordered a chocolate muffin. The first bite I had was shocking, not in its sweetness but its lack thereof. It tasted like lightly chocolate-flavored bread. But after a few more bites, I tasted a pleasantly sweet chocolate muffin. Light and airy, wonderful texture, just sweet enough. The first bite was so unexpected because I had anticipated a 700-calorie triple chocolate calorie bomb like I was used to in the States. But the number of calories in that muffin had to have been at most one third of the ones from the States (it was also at least 50% smaller, but that's another story altogether). Don't get me wrong - the Japanese love their sweets, and produce some of the most delicate, intricate, extraordinary sweets in the world. But in general, they are less sweet than their American counterparts, and the Japanese consume them in greater moderation than America. Plus, these creations have many flavor dimensions other than just "sweet".

So, back to America's addiction with sweets. I would venture to guess that extra sweeteners in the food we consume is a strong contributing factor to our fatness and general unhealthiness as a nation. Imagine if we could decrease the average sweetness of sweetened foods by 20%. How many billions of calories would not be consumed every day? How many pounds would not be gained each year? How much would the average risk for heart disease and adult-onset diabetes drop, and thus how much money would the American healthcare system be saved?

The question is, how do we get there? I've heard that the mythical "American palate" craves foods that are this sweet, but if my theory about sweetness adaptation holds true, then there must be another reason. Perhaps it's the overly powerful sugar lobby? And of course the extremely powerful American corn farmers, who have gotta sell their high-fructose corn syrup somewhere, and what better customers than America's processed food manufacturers?

So how do we solve this problem on a national level? I think we need to rely on economics. That is, we need a tax on sweeteners. Let's start with high-fructose corn syrup. What if there were a tax on high-fructose corn syrup (let's arbitrarily say the revenue will go towards non-ethanol-based alternative energy)? Well, processed food companies would pretty quickly shift to other sweeteners. What if those sweeteners, such as good old sugar, had their huge agricultural subsidies removed (and arbitrarily redirected to bolstering physical education programs in our nation's schools)? Presumably processed food conglomerates would start making products with less sugar. Products with the same level of sweetness would start to cost more (so rich people could stay fat if they wanted), and people would start choosing less sweet, healthier products.

Do I expect this to happen? No, not really. Agricultural and processed food special interests are too powerful, and Americans have a sense of entitlement when it comes to consuming massively unhealthy foods. Do I think it would improve the health of the nation? Sure do.

Disclaimer: Don't take nutrition advice from engineers.


  1. Not only would we be slimmer, we'd also be sick less often. This study found that a mere 100 grams of simple sugars (which is in about half a cup of orange juice) decreases immunity for more than 2 hours:

  2. That's a really interesting study. It not only shows that sugar decreases immune response, but that fasting increases immune response. Seems to tie in nicely with recent studies indicating the effectiveness of starvation on protection of non-cancerous cells during chemotherapy.