Last week at the family reunion, Nat and I got a few food questions because, well, we've got a food blog. One relative asked, "What's your stance on sugar and artificial sweeteners?"
Which made me think back to high school and my first love affair - the Cadbury Creme Egg.
After Easter, these chocolatey sugar bombs go on sale. One year, I stocked up with close to twenty discount eggs in my school locker.
Every day after lunch, I'd delicately unwrap the foil, bite off a bit of the milk chocolate shell, and slurp out the white and yellow "yolk," hurtling towards glycemic bliss.
About a week into my supply, a classmate saw my stash, and mentioned that he didn't like the candy. He said they were "too sweet."
Psssh! There's no such thing as "too sweet," I thought. In my mind, if something was sweeter, it was just better.
But after he introduced the concept - "too sweet" - my mindset started to shift. The next time I chomped into one of the candy eggs, I realized he was right.
Tastes, and Why We Love Sweet Things
We're programmed to like sweet things. It's not just that our bodies crave it for energy, but our brains release hormones that make us feel good, too. As infants, we prefer only sweet tastes. Other taste preferences develop with age, or only after we try them a few times. We literally have to learn to like coffee, beer, wine, cheese, olives, and veggies like Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, and other foods.
This is where added sugar, artificial sweeteners, and processed foods start to take advantage of our physiology.
It used to be a genuine treat to get fresh fruit or honey, and desserts came infrequently for special occasions. Maybe if you were royalty, you could get dessert at every meal.
Now, we're all royalty. Sugar comes every morning with our coffee, and we have treats at every birthday, date, holiday, or any occasion, special or not.
But excess sugar affects us negatively in many ways: weight gain, low energy, poor attention, negative moods, not to mention long-term problems like gout, hypertension, and Type 2 Diabetes.
It's not as simple as just avoiding sugar, either. Artificial sweeteners are many times sweeter than anything natural, which dull our senses to real food and manipulate our brains to crave more. We also trick ourselves by saying, "oh, this is sugar-free, I guess I can have a little more."
4 Tips for How to Get Over Sugar
- Eat only real foods. This means fruit, veggies, nuts, seeds, etc. Real foods have proportions of macro and micronutrients that make it hard to overeat. Not true with candy.
- Avoid anything processed. This means most sugars and artificial sweeteners. Honey, maple syrup, and molasses have some nutritional value, but we try to use them as a real treat.
- Start tasting and smelling. Our senses want stimulation. Sweetness in taste is the simplest. Try learning to taste bitter, sour, salty, and umami. For the big leagues, start "smelling" your food as you eat, called retro-nasal olfaction. This is how people pick out subtle notes in wine, coffee, cheese, and a lot of other specialties. (Check out Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, by Mary Roach for an education).
- Be patient. It's not all about willpower and self-control. A lot of us are literally addicted to sugar, so it may take time to get over it. Plus, an enormous amount of marketing, culture, and history encourage eating sweets in excess.
Grilled Peach and Mizuna Salad
This recipe is an attempt to highlight the case for natural sweetness. Grilling peaches brings out a deeper flavor than just sweet. Charring the fruit burns some sugar, just like a burnt marshmallow. Add to this the pungent basil, toasted pumpkin seeds, the bitter radicchio, and tart lemon dressing, and the flavors mix for something more complex, but still comforting.
- 1 firm peach (ideally a 'freestone' variety)
- 1 bunch mizuna, roughly chopped (arugula works, too)
- 1 radicchio, roughly chopped
- 1 fennel, cut in half, then sliced
- 1/3 cup pumpkin seeds
- 2/3 cup basil, roughly chopped
- 2 Tbsp olive oil, divided
- Sea salt
*We usually top our salad with avocado, but a crumbly cheese would also work
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice
- Sea salt
- Pre-heat grill pan on low
- Cut the fennel in half, then slice.
- In a large bowl, combine the fennel with 1 Tbsp olive oil and a pinch of salt. Mix well.
- Cut the peach around the stone. Remove the pit, then cut each half into 5 wedges - 10 wedges total.
- In a large bowl, combine the peach wedges with 1 Tbsp olive oil and a pinch of salt. Mix gently.
- Toast the pumpkin seeds in a pan over medium heat. Stir every 20-30 seconds for about 2 minutes. Remove and let cool.
- Turn grill pan heat to medium, and let heat for 1 minute.
- Spread fennel evenly on grill pan. Stir every minute, for about 4-6 minutes. Remove and let cool.
- Grill peaches 1 minute on first side, and 30 seconds on the second side.
- Assemble salad on two plates - greens, then fennel, the avocado, then basil, peaches, pumpkin seeds.
- Drizzle dressing over everything.
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