Americans have been turned into sugar junkies, largely due to no fault of our own. One of the biggest contributing factors was U.S. farm policies that encouraged corn production. Farmers were paid to grow more and more corn, subsidized by the government, even though the demand wasn’t very high. So scientists worked to find alternative uses for corn, which led to the development of ethanol and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Because of the excess of corn, HFCS ended up being less expensive than cane sugar. It was also much sweeter tasting. The correlation between weight gain and Type 2 diabetes in the U.S. and increased use of HFCS is not a coincidence. (If you are riveted and want to read more, check out my book!)
Because the food industry switched mostly to using HFCS, Americans’ taste buds became accustomed to sweeter foods–and not just cakes and cookies, but ketchup and spaghetti sauce, crackers and even the coating on chicken nuggets and French fries. But these same big food companies that manufacture food for foreign markets found that the stuff they sold in the U.S. didn’t sell so well overseas. They had to reformulate processed foods like Oreos to be more appealing to people who hadn’t become desensitized to sugar. The soda industry experienced the same thing. Mexican Coca-Cola is still made with cane sugar because they rejected the sweetness of the HFCS American version.
Our bodies naturally reject bitter foods as part of our evolutionary defense system against poisons, which makes sugary-tasting foods even more appealing. But we also benefit from the phytonutrients bitter edibles like cruciferous vegetables and citrus fruits provide. Cooking vegetables obviously is one way to reduce the bitterness of foods, which is why roasted vegetables are much tastier.
But what often happens with processed foods is that the manufacturer started adding sugar to a lot of produce. It’s not unusual to find sugar added to canned fruits (doesn’t that seem odd, since most fruit is already sweet?), but also canned and frozen vegetables (check the label of a can of Green Giant canned corn or frozen sweet peas steamers). And a lot of people wouldn’t even think to check out the ingredient list for sugar when buying vegetables. So it’s no wonder that we’re sugar addicts, with it being added to practically all the processed foods we buy–which is sometimes less expensive but always much quicker to prepare than cutting up fresh vegetables.
Ditch sugary drinks if you want to kick your sugar habit. These are the worst offenders, especially the ones with artificial sweeteners, since some of them are not just 10s, but 100s of times sugarier-tasting than plain sugar. Switch to stevia, when possible, because it has a sweetness level on par with cane sugar, but without the calories.
Read labels. If you buy pre-packaged vegetables, beans, or fruit, look for options that don’t have the hidden added sugars.
Rotate out processed goods and integrate in whole grain foods, use less sugar, or just switch to less sweet sugars, like brown rice syrup. I recently had a conversation with a blog reader who wanted to know how he could kick his M & M habit–his one weakness. I, too, used to be completely hooked on those little sugar-coated chocolate wonders. When I realized I was a sugar addict, I decided to wean myself off of them. At first I opted for the peanut variety because they seemed less sweet. After that, I decided I just wasn’t going to buy them anymore. This move paralleled my switch to whole grain foods and lower-glycemic sugars, which made it much easier because it got to the point where the M & Ms were just too sweet and lost their appeal.
Even sugar in moderation is okay. After being biologically and commercially conditioned to crave sugar, it’s no wonder it’s so hard to kick the habit. There’s nothing wrong with occasionally indulging in the stuff we love–but isn’t so great for us–as long we aren’t undermining our health. So if your treat for the day is a packet of M & Ms, knock yourself out, as long as sugar isn’t starring or lurking in everything else you’re eating.