We, as humans, love sweet food. Really, all animals do. Sweetness is a sign of simple sugars, which our bodies can easily break down for either quick energy, or long term storage for leaner times. Given our desire towards sweetness, and the cheap availability of artificial sweeteners like High Fructose Corn Syrup, it’s no wonder that the comment visitors to the United States (or Great Britain for that matter) most have regarding the supermarket fare available to us is about it’s sweetness.
We put sweetener in everything. At our local supermarket, all but one brand of Applesauce contains High Fructose Corn Syrup. You can find bags of frozen vegetables that contain HFCS. And there are very few national brands of soda which are still made with real cane sugar. Medical professionals talk a lot about the increasing waistlines of American’s, and how we’re killing ourselves. I myself am larger than I really ought to be, currently tipping the scales at just over 330 pounds. While my frame is larger, and therefore I can stand to be heavier than my 6’ height suggests, I know that I am still larger than I ought to be, and I feel that daily.
However, while I do come from a family of large people, the reasons behind my weight are simple. I ate too much, and I moved too little. My chosen career is even fairly sedentary. In short, my current health is my own fault, and I acknowledge that. However, when you look at the national trends in obesity and size, there has been a fascinating shift over the last century. Poor people are now, on the whole, fatter than wealthy people.
There is a reason that Gluttony is considered one of the Seven Deadly Sins. For the majority of human history, the only way a person could be gluttonous, and could reach the rotund proportions of obesity was through forcing others (and often many others) to go without. It required wealth and power. However, wealthy people could afford to eat, and eat more, and they did, feeding a biological imperative to eat. It is only in modern times, that we’ve had enough for everyone (at least, everyone in developed nations) to consume in this fashion, but that we’ve also realized the great comedy in our biology: That our desire to eat, and to consume, is not only killing us, but the very ecosystems we depend on for our food.
There is a difference, however, between the wealthy and the poor. While throughout history it was only the very wealthy who could afford immensely calorie rich foods, these foods are now widely available through the availability of inexpensive (or rather, seemingly inexpensive) sweeteners. And worse, these calorie-rich, but nutrient-poor foods are often the cheapest on the shelves. Therefore, the least financially sound are most able to afford those foods which bring little to the table buy high quantities of calories, but little else. It’s not just an issue of money, however. Those who become wealthy, particularly in the modern world, are not those who are born into it (necessarily), but rather those who desire it most. Even our current president was raised in a middle class family, only to gain great wealth and the highest office in this nation through his own ambition.
Sure, there are obese rich people. For my age, I’m doing fairly well financially (though I am far from wealthy), but after watching a few shows yesterday on the super-morbidly obese (like 900 pounds at 19 years old), I can tell you that these people generally appear to be, at best, lower middle class. And the foods that they tend to strive towards are foods which, for what they are, are far sweeter than we might traditionally think.
This is, in short, what Michael Pollan was talking about in The Omnivore’s Dillema when he mentions our National Eating Disorder. We live in a food culture where our own biological imperatives are skillfully marketed at, with many people either being unaware of the problem, or being unable to afford to get out of the vicious cycle our food system puts us in.
A lot of people like to blame High Fructose Corn Syrup for a lot of dietary woes. Some of these people claim that HFCS is simply worse for your than sugar. While there is evidence that suggests that real sugar makes us feel full while HFCS doesn’t, the real problem isn’t HFCS over Real Sugar, it’s the amount of sweetness we’ve come to expect from our food. I mean, when applesauce requires additional sugars, something is clearly wrong with our sense of taste.
Sweetness is a good thing, those sugars are certainly capable of bringing that quick energy we sometimes need, but if we’re going to improve our national health, we need to reboot our taste. We need to learn to appreciate our food for what it really it. And we need to force the food establishment in this country to stop making everything so damn sweet.