Sugar. It is everywhere and in everything, including a variety of sauces, dressings, and other common condiments such as ketchup and gravy (Cording, 2016).
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommends Americans limit added sugar, including syrups and other caloric sweeteners, to no more than 10% of their daily caloric needs. To put this into perspective, the daily limit for someone on a 2,000 calorie diet is approximately 12 teaspoons of sugar (Cording, 2016). Sugar intake and highly processed foods play a major role in diabetes, heart disease, and extra body fat. But should we be treating sugar as our one and only arch nemesis? Yes and no.
Although it is important to limit and control your sugar intake, abruptly removing sugar from your diet is not recommended because it can cause sugar dependency and consequently lead to episodes of binging (Is sugar really addictive?, 2002). Furthermore, forbidding sugar from your diet will only create a greater temptation. We live in a world where sugar is considered to be a mouth-watering treat, implying that everything else we eat, including fruits and vegetables, is not (Fabricant, 1992). Our mindset is skewed to associate vegetables with feelings of disgust and chocolate with feelings of deliciousness. At the end of the day, we are afraid to acknowledge and appreciate the pleasure and taste of food (Fabricant, 1992).
With that being said, pleasure and taste must not be forgotten when trying to promote a healthier lifestyle. Taste is one of the most satisfying and enduring bodily experiences, and much of what we can taste is associated with smell (Hess, 1997).
There are four primary tastes, including sweet, salt, sour, and bitter. Umami has also been accepted as an additional primary taste, and it is best described as being savory. Taste buds function differently depending on whether they are sensitive to sour, bitter, or sweet foods. Taste buds sensitive to sour tastes detect the degree of acidity in foods. Sensitive taste buds to bitter tastes can detect poisons in wild plants, and taste buds sensitive to sweet tastes are known to have helped animals determine whether unknown foods are poisonous (Hess, 1997).
At birth, we naturally prefer sweet substances. Our brain is programmed to seek out sweet substances because “In nature,” as David Levitsky, PhD, a professor of nutritional sciences and psychology at Cornell University states, “there are very few sweet things that don’t have a large amount of energy. That’s how we developed a basic biological function to prefer sweet tastes,” (Is sugar really addictive?, 2002).
Hess (1997) also explains the difference between “supertasters” and “non-tasters“. “Supertasters” do not require the intense taste of refined sugar to satisfy them, while “non-tasters” require stronger tastes for a fuller taste sensation. Furthermore, the response to taste is more intense at the beginning of eating, rather than towards the end of eating, when both taste and smell fatigue set in. Challenging and surprising your sense of smell and taste, by having a varied diet, maximizes the sensory impact and reduces the sensory fatigue while eating (Hess, 1997).
In a clinical setting, medications, chronic disorders, and radiation therapy are commonly known to alter taste perception, resulting in a loss of appetite. Certain endocrine dysfunctions, cystic fibrosis, Addison’s disease, Cushing’s syndrome, and hypertension have been reported to affect taste perception. An altered taste perception can also lead to food poisoning due to the inability to determine whether a food has been spoiled (Hess, 1997).
It is easy to forget about pleasure and taste when focusing on health and nutrition, but it is important to find a balance. Hess (1997) notes that 88% of consumers rate taste as very important in shopping for food. The American Institute of Wine and Food’s ongoing program, “Resetting the American Table,” states “In matters of taste, consider nutrition, and in matters of nutrition, consider taste. And in all cases, consider individual needs and preferences.”
“Taste is personal. Flavors are pleasing and displeasing based on physiologic, psychological, and cultural variables,” (Hess, 1997). Therefore, it is important for dietitians and other health professionals to take these variables into account. Dietary recommendations are not black and white. Compromise and adaptation will promote a healthful lifestyle that is both sustainable and cumulative. “Individualizing nutrition advice, with consideration of taste, health needs, and personal preferences, is a “signature dish” of quality dietetics practice,” (Hess, 1997).
Mintz (1985) discusses how the environment has led to the rise of sugar and its impact on recent dietary changes, including the decline of three meal a day eating pattern, the dependence on prepared foods, and the prevalence of eating out. Richard Mattes, PhD, RD, a professor of foods and nutrition at Purdue University explains, “when we are young, we learn to seek out sweets as a reward or bribe for doing something good,” (Is sugar really addictive?, 2002).
Aside from the environmental factors, it is important to acknowledge the physiological aspects of what and why we eat. Although the external environment influences what and why we eat, basic biology is critical to understanding taste and certain flavors. Steiner (1977) and Mennella and Bobowski (2015) support the importance of basic biology as it relates to basic tastes. However, Mennella and Bobowski (2015) explains how the food environment of commercially prepared, sugar-rich foods, extenuate the basic biology of children and their want for sweets. Therefore, having a better understanding of this may promote healthier eating.
The first step to reduce your sugar consumption, starts in the grocery store. It is recommended to use fruits and vegetables, that are naturally sweet, when baking or cooking. For example, you can add a mashed banana to your oatmeal in the morning and microwave it for a minute, which naturally adds sweetness to the oatmeal (Cording, 2016). According to Julie Davis (2017), satisfying a craving for sugar can be accomplished by resetting your taste buds, or by exercising. Exercising can lower your desire for unhealthy, high-calorie foods. However, using artificial sweeteners have not shown to suppress sugar cravings.
By increasing attention to taste, the effectiveness of nutrition counseling can be increased. Below are suggestions on how to focus on taste (Hess, 1997):
- When shopping, choose foods that are beautiful, fresh, and full-flavored.
- In planning a menu, choose foods of different shapes, colors, and textures. Foods with eye appeal elicit more saliva. Visual appeal is essential. Food arrangements on the plate and garnishes can improve food intake and eating enjoyment.
- Recommend foods that are ethnically appropriate and that can be prepared with familiar seasonings.
- Experiment with flavor enhancers and with balancing flavors.
- Encourage clients to take time to smell their food and to savor its flavor.
- Advise clients to chew their food thoroughly to release its flavor molecules. Chewing also forces odors into the nasal cavity.
- Maximize flavor by providing a variety of foods within each meal. Switching from food to food throughout a meal reduces taste bud fatigue.
- Serve foods hot or warm to increase their volatile smells.
- Choose foods with what flavor researcher Inglis Miller calls “flavor gestalt” (2). Garlic, onions, citrus, and ripe berries pack a lot of flavor. Reserve fat for maximum flavor impact, and use as little as possible to create the flavor effect.
Cording, J. (2016). Looking to Reduce Your Family’s Intake of Added Sugars? Here’s How. Kids eat right.Retrieved from http://www.eatright.org/
Davis, D. (2017). Reset your Taste Buds for Less Sugar. HealthDay. Retrieved from https://consumer.healthday.
Fabricant, F. (1992, January 21). Remember Red-Meat Orgies In the Cave? Your Taste Buds Do. Retrieved July 21, 2017, from http://www.nytimes.com/1992/
Hess, M. A. (1997). Taste: the neglected nutritional factor. Journal of the American Dietetic Association,97(10), S205+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.
Is sugar really addictive? (2002, October). Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter, 20(8), 1+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.
Mennella, J. A., & Bobowski, N. K. (2015). The sweetness and bitterness of childhood: Insights from basic research on taste preferences. Physiology & Behavior, 152, 502-507. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2015.05.
Mintz, S. W. (1986). Sweetness and Power. Penguin Books.Steiner, J. E. (1977). Facial expressions of the neonate infant indicating the hedonics of food-related chemical stimuli. Taste and development: The genesis of sweet preference, 173-188.
Written by Nicole Lindel ~ Nutrition Education Master’s Student at Columbia University