Sugar is like a hot water bottle. It soothes emotional pain, comforts us and provides an immediate time machine back to our childhoods. But of course, as we've come to learn, sugar has also made a shocking impact on global health.
The white stuff is one of the cheapest, most prevalent ingredients in the world. Almost all processed foods utilize it to develop flavor complexity, structure, consistency, and even color. Even if something isn't perceived as sweet when we're eating it—a supermarket microwave carbonara, say, if that's your thing—without a fair whack of sugar, it wouldn't taste or look how it does.
I recently spent four months working as a researcher at Copenhagen's Nordic Food Lab—the epicentre of New Nordic Cuisine— on a boat opposite noma. During my time there I began contemplating why so many diners perceived noma's desserts as almost savory. I thought back to my childhood, when my Turkish friends and I would eat outrageously sweet baklava. I never managed more than three pieces, but lost count of the amount they put away.
Why could I stomach less sugar than them? Why did I love condensed milk as a child in Vietnam but have serious troubles reintroducing it my taste buds to it 15 years later when I returned to Hanoi?
The huge gap in perceiving sweetness became tangible at the lab when an intern from Pune, India, came onboard with bags filled with Indian desserts. We all loved the gesture, but, whether it was down to our diverging genotypes, our sociocultural upbringings, personal preference, or simply the proximity of noma, the crew wasn't too sweet on those Indian pastries.
My first meal at noma was an eye-opening experience when it comes to sweetness. René's "Never use sugar. Sugar is the Enemy" mantra rang in my mind as the meal was reaching its finale, and, it turned out, the desserts at Noma were precisely to my taste. Refined sugar is avoided there, and is often replaced by local honey. To those used to a diet far richer in refined sugar, the run of desserts at noma can be quite a shock to the system. However, I'd wager that the vast influence of New Nordic Cuisine—spearheaded by René and noma—has affected both chefs' and consumers' perceptions of sweetness across the world.
While at the lab, I presented a slimy Finnish fermented milk product called viili together with chef Roberto Flore at one of noma's infamous Saturday Night Projects. Being Sardinian, Roberto's perception of sweetness was different from mine, and even more different from noma's sweetness levels. We ended up presenting our dish—"Sauna & Spring," a plate of viili, dehydrated parsnip bark, and nasturtium granité—as an appetizer or a pre-dessert dish.
After introducing the noma team to the dessert comprised of my slimy Finnish friend, conversation turned to sweetness. René thought it was very sweet, as did Rosio, head of pastry. Roberto didn't agree. The Brix meter was brought out. It signalled 9Bx, but the verdict of the team settled at around 23. "The meter must be broken" René said. End of discussion. One can only imagine how many Southerners go back home after working at noma, only to find that granny's cookies now taste too sweet.
Previous to my time at Nordic Food Lab, I had embarked on an entirely sugar-free diet. I was curious how it would affect my metabolism, mood, and energy. I managed to live without sugar for three years, but the immediate shock of consuming no sugar is brutal. The first months were as tasteless and bland as the most beige school canteen food you've ever had. However, I soon witnessed a paradox—the less sugar I ate, the more my palate detected delicate flavours. It made me question the embedded paradigm of sugar being a flavor enhancer.
Not eating sugar makes you want to talk about it all the time, with everyone, and I discovered just how personal a thing sweetness is. The difference in how people sweeten their drinks or breakfast porridge is fascinating. Everyone has their own personal sweet spot, a threshold where a cup of coffee, for example, will be considered undrinkable until the perfect amount of sugar or sweetener has been added. What is the first step on the path to this adult sweet spot, though? Where does it begin?
Humans are, in fact, born with innate preferences for sweetness, as well as aversion to bitterness. It all starts in the womb. Amniotic fluids pass flavors onto the fetus, which will swallow different tastes at varying rates, and it's these formative exposures that stick with us after birth. But whereas some scientists might argue that people's genotypes determine taste preferences, there are those who will say both sociocultural and geographic influences have more power over our perception of flavor, especially when it comes to sweetness.
Other than amniotic fluid, the first thing we ever consume as a human being is the milk of our mothers, and, as anyone who has tasted breast milk will attest, it's pretty sweet. Whether Indian women have sweeter breast milk than, say, Scandinavian women, is out of my zone of expertise.
What does differ across the world, though, is the food we have access to growing up, our formative sources of sweetness. Looking back a thousand years or so, in Northern Europe, sweet cravings would be sated—rarely at that—with honey or dried fruit. The more south one goes, though, the sunnier it gets, and fruits become sweeter, more plump and bountiful. It seems to make perfect sense that a child growing up in Andalucia, with un-damned access to the mouth-filling sweetness of flat peaches, would wind up having a very different palate to a Finn who grew up eating blueberries.
Some fruits that grow in hot climates, such as dates, often have outrageous sugar levels, and fructose—the sugar found in honey and fruit—is far sweeter than the sucrose in table sugar. Wild blueberries in Finland taste sweet to me, but I doubt others from warmer climates would agree. Perhaps we don't care for powerful sweetness because, if we were entirely living off the land, we just wouldn't get it. Ever.
Once upon a time, refined white sugar was synonymous with prestige—the whiter the sugar, the higher the position in society. Today, in the Nordic countries at least, refined sugar is generally frowned upon. I imagine René has a lot to do with that. But you only have to take a trip out to the countryside, away from the progressive ways of the big city, to see how refined sugar is still used in abundance. You might think, well, if the leaderof one of the biggest shifts in modern dining in decades, a man who praises deliciousness above anything else, has such a hard stance on sugar, shouldn't we all listen? But it's so hard—as I found out—to shake off our ingrained tastes for sweetness.
I can speak about my sugar-free experience in past tense now, although I still steer clear of the white, refined stuff. I still prefer cheese for dessert, but sugar is, moderately, back in my life. Whether or not my international upbringing has informed my taste for it or not, and regardless of both the modern research showing just how damaging sugar can be and my experience at noma and Nordic Food Lab, I am not completely rational. No human being can be.
We have been warned of the tangible, deadly effects of smoking for years, and yet we keep smoking. Sugar might not fill your lungs with black tar, but we're probably going to find out in the near future just how much of a killer it really is. Yes, I have met Southeast Asians, Indians, and Sardinians who have a strong sweet tooth, and yes, Scandinavians might avoid refined white sugar largely thanks to the "noma effect," but it seems as though, if my experience can point to anything, that everyone, everywhere, enjoys sweetness on some level.
We all need something sweet occasionally. If our taste for it develops before we have even taken our first breaths, it's surely impossible for it to ever really, truly, be conditioned out of us.