Monthly Archives: August 2015

Will The Crusade Against Sugar Be The Next Prohibition?

There seems to be an eerie similarity between the current rages against the consumption of sugar, in any form, and of any amount, that parallels the rampages against alcohol in the early part of the 20th century. To be sure we don’t yet have axe wielding anti-sugar fanatics crashing down the supermarket aisles throwing boxes of brown sugar on the floor and setting cookies ablaze.  And so far, sugar is not contraband property, available only after whispering a password and exchanging money with some scary figure guarding the door to the pastry shop. But given the books, documentaries and internet sites devoted to demonizing this sweet carbohydrate, such events may not long in coming. Mary Poppins, who sang that a ‘spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,’ might be burned as a witch were she to sing that ditty today. Or to put a contemporary spin on the response of the anti-sugar crusade to her advice, she might be fined several thousand dollars and forced to drink a glass of unsweetened lemonade.

No one disputes the unhealthy consequences of consuming too much sugar.  We must stop teenagers from  drinking  20oz of a sugar containing soda or fruit drink as their  breakfast, or elderly people eating only cookies for dinner. They will suffer not only the consequences of eating too much of this simple carbohydrate, but also the consequences of disastrously poor nutrient intake. And we should be aware that large amounts of sugar lurk not only in soda, but in the very popular energy drinks. One might think that the entire country is overcome with fatigue when considering that not only adults, but also teenagers and children drink these beverages. The energy in energy drinks comes not only from the caffeine but also from sugar; per ounce the drinks may have the same or even more sugar than Coca-Cola.  

No one needs that much sugar for energy unless running 100 miles, biking across the continent, or shoveling out from a three day blizzard. In England, there is presently a campaign to ban the sale of such drinks to children. Given that caffeine and sugar are hardly optimal food groups for kids in any country, these drinks ought to be limited to adults as well in the U.S.

Very few of us consume sugar by itself.  Perhaps Pooh Bear could polish off a jar of honey, but few humans, fictional or otherwise, sit down and consume the sugar in the sugar bowl, or eat maple sugar candy. Anyone who has attempted to eat the latter knows how difficult it is to consume more than a few bites because of its granular consistency and intense sweetness. We consume sugar as an ingredient in prepared foods, and oftentimes foods that contain large amounts of sugar (other than beverages) contain large amounts of fat as well: doughnuts, cake, cookies, candy bars, pies, frosting, fried dough, etc.  Thus, when we decrease our sugar intake we concurrently decrease our consumption of saturated fat. This is a win-win all around, unless one believes that eating large amounts of fat is healthy.

But why insist that those of us who eat moderate amounts of sugar in an occasional cookie, cupcake, piece of wedding cake or chocolate bar, stop eating sugar entirely?  If I want to add a few teaspoons of sugar to tomato sauce, sweet and sour red cabbage, or a marinade to offset the white vinegar or lemon juice or to help caramelize the meat, is this sugar going to shorten my life?  Will eating a piece of birthday cake cause my brain cells to implode and hasten the coming of dementia?

The ‘Sugar is Death’ people seem to overlook the fact that honey, a sugar containing food, has been consumed for thousands of years and in every major religious group; this sweet, sugary food symbolizes health, a sweet future, longevity, and spiritual strength.

I believe it is important to compare the anti-sugar campaign with the concerted efforts of well-meaning people to ban alcohol. To be sure, those folk were not worried about people drinking sacramental wine during religious ceremonies, or the small glass of sherry drank by a 90 year old woman to honor her birthday. Nevertheless, the ban on alcohol was all encompassing, unless of course one had connections. The anti-sugar crusaders seem to be taking the same Prohibitionist approach, and even though they are not banning sugar (yet), they certainly are making many of us feel guilty and embarrassed if we eat a chocolate truffle, or ice cream. And many people who proclaim themselves non-sugar eaters look askance at their friends and family members who are still putting that supposedly toxic ingredient in their bodies.

Could we call for a bit of moderation here? No one condones binge drinking or alcoholism, and no one condones excessive consumption of sugar from energy drinks, sodas and a diet of pastries and ice cream.  We attempt to make people recognize the dangers of drinking too much, to one’s own health and that of others (drunk drivers). In this vein, the intake of sugar ought to be limited and people made aware of its negative effects on health if consumed in large quantities and/or too often.

Truly, a world without any sweetness? Without any sugar, honey, or maple syrup? It would be a grim world indeed.

The Vanishing Bread Basket

My breadbasket disappeared.  It was a small container, big enough to hold a couple of rolls or freshly toasted garlic bread, but its size and shape announced that it was meant to hold something small and solid, not gravy, roasted Brussels sprouts or pickles.  My problem is that I cannot find a replacement. Stores selling housewares, from the lowly discount store to high-end retailers, don’t seem to carry this item.  However, I have not tried the summer antique fairs because I don’t want to find something tarnished and in need of buckets of silver polish.

But not only has the breadbasket disappeared from my kitchen; it seems to be disappearing from restaurants as well. Over the past several weeks I noticed that during the time between giving an order and receiving the first course, a time when a basket of freshly baked bread, rolls, or even bread sticks used to appear, nothing is put on the table.  In the past, the starchy delights would soothe the (presumably) hungry diners into not growling at the server, “Why aren’t you here with my appetizer?”  Now there is nothing to prevent the growl.

Recently, looking at the empty spot on the tablecloth where the breadbasket should have sat, my spouse asked for some bread. The server looked taken aback as if the request had been for a roasted pig’s head or bucket of live eels.

“Bread?” he asked. “You want bread?”  

And then several minutes later, a very small roll was served—one roll served to one person. “Uh, could I have a roll also? “ I asked. The server’s glance seemed to say, “You shouldn’t be eating this.”

What has happened to us as a formerly bread eating country?  Haven’t most of us grown up eating sandwiches all through elementary school, making sandwiches for picnics and car trips, discovering ethnic bakery shops that made us want to eat a freshly baked baguette, a raisin, nut and cranberry whole grain roll, a puffy hot pita or a savory corn bread on the spot? Haven’t we mopped up a delectable wine sauce or rich gravy with sourdough bread and thought we were in heaven?  Most cultures reserve special breads for special holidays, and its true that the scent of freshly baked bread, wafting over a sidewalk, has the power to make most of us salivate.

But something strange has happened.  It’s as if an evil queen from a non-bread eating fairytale kingdom has cursed us. Self-appointed gurus have convinced us that eating bread will produce the direst consequences for our brains, our bellies, maybe even our investments in the stock market.  To be sure, there are a very small number of people who suffer from celiac disease associated with the consumption of gluten, and others who may have some type of allergic response to the gluten protein, or perhaps some other protein in wheat flour. But copious information is available pointing to the rarity of these conditions, not that most self-diagnosed gluten-avoiding folk want to know this.

And bread—plain, ordinary, unadorned bread, made from yeast, flour and water—has been reviled as a major contributor to obesity. That the calorie count for a gram of bread is the same as a gram of an egg white is ignored.

What is also surprisingly ignored is the role bread plays in controlling our appetite. Bread, like any other starchy carbohydrate that contains very little protein, has a prominent role in increasing our brain’s supply of serotonin. The amount of carbohydrate in a medium size roll (not the golf ball size roll my spouse was served) when digested increases the amount of serotonin in the brain.  And this serotonin, in addition to soothing our moods, decreases our appetite. Around forty years ago, serotonin was identified as the brain chemical that turned off our desire to continue eating. It functions to increase satiety, that is, the feeling that we just don’t want to put more food in our mouths, even if we haven’t eaten that much.

Indeed, we developed a successful weight-loss strategy by advising dieters to eat a small amount of carbohydrate, such as a roll, about an hour before mealtime. Doing so ‘spoils the appetite,‘ as your mother undoubtedly told you when you asked for a cookie an hour before dinner. The carbohydrate initiates serotonin production, which serves to calm and subdue a ravenous appetite.

Is it possible that restaurants don’t want we diners to eat bread before the main course because we will be too full for dessert? Could be. Because as our dieters found out, the increased serotonin in the brain really did diminish their desire to keep eating after they finished their main (calorie controlled) course. We never did a study to see whether eating bread at a meal improved relationships between the diners because their mood was improved, but it is possible.

So I say bring back the breadbasket before it is such a rare item, it is displayed on “Antiques Road Show.”