Do you have a sweet tooth? I certainly do. If you live in the U.S. like I do, your definition of “sweet” may be on a whole other level than the rest of the world. Today, my office hosted a winter cookie party. The event took place in the early afternoon right around lunch. I was pretty hungry going into the event, not having eaten since morning. The spread was pure eye candy. The mini buffet started with a small tray of disparate cookies (chocolate, pumpkin, and red velvet), followed by a few decorated gingerbreads, cake and fudge pops, and assorted mini cupcakes. Coffee, hot chocolate, and a mini-bar of hot-chocolate toppings brought the buffet to a warm, sugary, and satisfying end.
What is it about sweet that we love so much? I think it has to do with our upbringings. In conversation with a colleague, she confessed to having a massive sweet tooth. She told us tales of trips to the marshmallow “Fluff” factory as a kid and admits to fixing her own children peanut butter and Fluff sandwiches (PB&F, if you will). In contrast, another colleague lamented that American cakes were “sugar bombs.” He then remarked that certain European cakes had a sort of richness and deep flavor that American-style pastries lacked. In my opinion, this is because much of our American desserts include more than a healthy portion of pure white sugar. When my colleague bit into his treats, he indulged with care and attention to the flavors that he was consuming. His tastes were discerning, and he didn’t just accept the pretty, artificially-colored assortments as “good,” by virtue of their status as a dessert. Instead, he actually tasted the treats rather than simply indulging in them. While the red velvet cake seemed to please his palate, other distinctly American morsels (like vanilla cake pops) did not hold his appeal. I, on the other hand, went a bit overboard.
As I mentioned earlier, I came into the winter cookie party feeling pangs of hunger. I did all within my power to restrain myself but ultimately went back to the buffet table for just one more cake pop, or to sample a cupcake that I had not tried. I made a meal out of sugar today. Sugar can be, what I will very unscientifically call, “low-key addictive.” A piece of research I came across indicated that chronic consumption of added sugar—aka 98% of that cupcake—dulls the brain’s anorexigenic oxytocin system, which signals the brain to stop eating. This means that when we are consuming sugary treats, we are much more likely to overindulge.
Sugar consumption (again of the “added” variety) can make us crave more sugar. When we give into these cravings, we feed our brain’s reward system and get a dopamine spike. Overtime, our brains will require more and more sugar to get this sort of “high.” Through this vicious cycle, we are inadvertently increasing our tolerance to sugar. I am positive this has happened to me to a certain extent. I remember an instance when I was in China with a group of British companions. At a hotel breakfast, many of us chose to take bread as a part of our meal. While the bread tasted normal to me, not even very flavorful, I overhead a British friend warning another that the bread was much too sweet. They agreed and could not believe that this sort of thing would be served so early in the day. I felt so strange and overtly American in that moment, because I could barely detect any flavor on the bland slice let alone any semblance of sweetness.
While I recognize that America is a big and diverse country, I think we collectively have built up a tolerance to sugar. We put it into our coffee, eat it in bowls with milk for breakfast, add it to our granola bars, and even make our low-calorie beverages taste sickeningly sweet with chemicals. While the research on sugar’s addictive quality is disputed, we all know that too much sugar is a bad thing for a myriad of health reasons. Even if our culture is low-key addicted to sugar that does not mean that we must be. Like all habits, our sugar consumption can be learned and un-learned. If we treat sugary foods as a special exception rather than a staple of our diets, then we can enjoy desserts instead of just craving and over-indulging in them.
I won’t shame myself for over-sampling at the cookie party today. Instead, I will take this as a lesson to never ever approach a dessert buffet on an empty stomach ever again 😊 Now, if you will excuse me, Dear Reader, I will go think about the consequences of my sugar cravings for a full 45 minutes at the gym.