10/02/2004

Essentially Sweet

I've lately been pondering the essence of sweetness. One of the rules of my diet is avoid sugar in most of its forms (sugar, evaporated cane juice, turbinado sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, juice concentrates). When reading a nutrition label,

[l]ook for words that end in "ose" or "ol" like dextrose, fructose, maltose, sucrose, glucose, lactose, mannitol and sorbitol. These are all forms of sugar. Syrups such as corn sweetener, sorghum syrup and high fructose syrups are sweeteners that are often added to drinks. Brown sugar, molasses and honey may be "natural" but they all give you the same calories as regular table sugar.

To return "sweetness" to my palate, I've been using sugar substitutes -- Splenda and Nutrasweet. By completely excluding real sugar, my palate has learned to accept Splenda as tasting like real sugar.

Have you ever had the experience of ordering colas from a restaurant and wondering if what you've just sipped from your unlabelled paper cup or glass is your "real" Pepsi or your friend's Diet Pepsi? I think this happens most often with fountain-served colas, where you're never sure that the establishment isn't trying to save a few cents by adjusting the amount of cola syrup in the drinks. I bet a really weakly mixed Coca Cola tastes a lot like a Diet Coke in these circumstances.

Up until recently I operated under the assumption that a sugar substitute was, well, a poor cousin to the real thing. After all, when your palate has just taken in a slice of chocolate cake with buttercream icing, a sugar-free chocolate candy tastes weird.

But maybe the problem lies in the relative sweetness scale. A molecule of sugar has a perceived sweetness rating; fructose has another, sorbitol another, and so forth. If you have X number of units of sucrose, you need twice as much maltose to approximate the same sweetness. But maltose may impart other flavors beside "sweet": maybe it has a burned quality, or a hint of spoiled salmon (who knows). So now you have to rejigger the other flavors in what you're making to compensate, and your simple substitution has gotten a lot more complicated.

Try this thought experiment: take three cups of coffee from the same pot. Add a teaspoon of sugar to one, a teaspoon of granulated Splenda to the second, and a teaspoon of mystery powder to the third. Sample all three.

The mystery powder is sugar that has been magically stripped of its insulin-triggering properties. You get no high, no sugar crash, no endorphin tickle. It's just "sweet" as you've always remembered. You're not feeling any physical "reward" from this product and your blood chemistry is as undisturbed as if you were drinking tap water.

Does it "taste" the same?

My theory is that when I really crave sweets, I am not craving just the taste experience but the whole physical reaction. It's a chemical pleasure I've gotten used to and want to return to.

If this is correct, then it doesn't matter if one day a chemist discovers a way to de-sugar-fy a sugar molecule the way we decaffeinate coffee, because we aren't craving the sugary taste: we want the sugary high.

And if that is the case, we're moving beyond the realm of self-discipline and stick-to-it-iveness, aren't we?

After all: do you know anyone who can't go a whole week without a salad?

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