When it comes to cravings, the undisputed champion is sugar. Sugar cravings are so common that we even have a special name for it, a sweet tooth. But in modern diets, sugar is also one of the main culprits of weight gain and obesity. While you may be looking to cut back on sugar to have a healthier diet, you may occasionally get that old craving for something sweet. It leaves many wondering why they feel this draw to indulge in decadent confectionaries despite the detriments to their health. Why do we feel this draw toward sugar and sweets? The answer is surprisingly deeper than simply “it tastes good.”
Similar to salt, sugar blends really well with other flavors while also working well as a main flavor of a dish. If you want to learn about the basics of flavor, check out our article on why foods taste good, but keep in mind that any flavor on its own doesn’t taste great. Pure salt or pure sweetness, though tasty as the main flavor of a dish, can be overpowering when it stands alone. The strength of sugar is that it plays nicely with each of the other main flavors in both lead and supporting roles.
The caramelization effect of sugar can be used for savory or acidic ingredients like onions or to balance out other flavors in a tomato sauce.
Think about caramel, essentially sugar that’s been browned. Alone, it’s pretty tasty, but when you add salt, you take it to a whole new level. Alternatively, the caramelization effect of sugar can be used for savory or acidic ingredients like onions or to balance out other flavors in a tomato sauce, for example. In many cases, sugar can be used to soften more intense flavors like sour, bitter, or acidic. To prove this, think of lemonade. Try lemon juice on its own. Doesn’t taste great, right? Now, balance it out with a little water and simple syrup, and suddenly, you have a summertime classic. Sweetness is important in balancing dishes to make them palatable and delicious.
It’s All in the Mind
Okay, so it’s great that sweetness is a useful tool in our culinary utility belts, but that doesn’t explain why we crave it so. You rarely get the same hankering for sour or bitter foods, for example. The reason for this has to do with what sugar does to our brains. See, sugar activates the pleasure portions of our brains, sending out powerful reward hormones. These neural pathways even overlap with those tied to drug abuse. While food scientists argue over the existence of sugar addiction, the effects sugar can have on our brains is pretty clear. Simply put, sugar makes our brains happy.
Much like fat, our bodies can become resistant or tolerant of sugar when we indulge in it too often.
Interestingly, this is similar to another weight gain culprit, fat. Much like fat, our bodies can become resistant or tolerant of sugar when we indulge in it too often, making us crave more to get our fix. When you combine fat and sugar, the effect is even strengthened, leading some to believe our brains are hardwired to love the pair. This neurological compulsion explains why some people have a persistent sweet tooth while others are more resistant to sugar’s charms.
Evolving Our Love of Sugar
Funny enough, there’s actually a really good reason as to why our brains spike with dopamine when we eat sugar, and it’s the same reason why sugar is so fattening. Sugar is super high in calories. This may seem like a “duh” type of statement, but we have to consider what calories actually are — energy that our bodies need. Calories only become bad when in excess. That wasn’t a problem for early humans, who may not have known when their next meal would be. Sugar also might have helped ancient humans hang on to fat, which can act as an energy reserve in survival situations.
There’s even evidence that humans who ate the most fruit had the best chances of surviving starvation to breed the next generation.
For early humans, any advantage was critical to survival, and a drive to eat calorie-dense food when you got the opportunity would certainly count as an advantage. There’s even evidence that humans who ate the most fruit (the ancient world’s main source of sugar) had the best chances of surviving starvation to breed the next generation. This sugar drive would be passed on to their children and so forth until it got to us, who struggle with cravings for the much more prevalent ice creams and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Thanks, ancient humans!
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At the end of it all, what does this teach us about sugar? Primarily, our takeaway can be that sugar is an important facet of our diets, and at one time, was even essential to our species’ survival. The problem we face today is an overabundance of sugar in our diets, not the occasional sweet treat. It’s our hope that, through this article and the others in this series, we can demystify our unhealthy cravings to eliminate some of the guilt associated with them. Remember, you can enjoy the occasional slice of chocolate lava cake, as long as you maintain an otherwise healthy balance and normally get your fix from better sugar alternatives (like honey or fruits). While we could all do with a little less sugar in our diets, it’s both unnecessary and unreasonable to completely eliminate it. So, go ahead, enjoy that milkshake. You’ll simply be following in the footsteps of our ancient, sugar-loving ancestors.