Understanding Our Complex Relationship with Sugar

Sugar is a complex ingredient that affects people in different ways. New research is revealing the myriad factors that determine how our bodies process and crave sugary foods.

The Evolutionary Basis for Our Sweet Tooth

Humans are innately drawn to sweet tastes, an inclination that evolved long ago to ensure we consumed enough calories to survive and grew quickly as babies.

So, when a sweet liquid is placed in the mouths of young mammals including human babies, their instinctive reaction is enjoyment. This is because in our ancestral environment, the sweetness of breastmilk signaled an easily digestible, high-calorie food source necessary for growth and avoiding starvation.

So humans are evolutionarily conditioned to seek out and relish sweet foods. The sweet taste predicts an incoming source of energy.

The Number of Taste Buds Matters

According to scientists, beyond genetics, a key factor determining sugar preference is the number of taste buds on the tongue. These house the taste receptor cells that detect sweetness.

People have remarkable variation in the lowest concentration of sugar they can perceive, and their most preferred level of sweetness. Reed found children on average prefer higher sugar concentrations, likely because their high caloric needs during growth phases heighten the appeal of sugary foods.

Fructose Absorption Ability Varies

Not only do people differ in their craving for sweets, but we vary in how readily our bodies absorb and metabolize the fructose in sugar.

Indigenous Maori people often poorly absorb fructose, and have high obesity and diabetes rates, so that correlates to their greater sugar consumption.

The liver processes fructose, and too much overwhelms its capacity. Differences in absorption, which alter the fructose load reaching the liver, affect an individual’s susceptibility to metabolic disease.

Upbringing Plays a Role Too

Amidst all the genetic and biological factors modulating sugar preferences, experiences early in life also shape our tastes. Eating pleasurable, sweet items in childhood can profoundly influence food choices later on.

For example, when a treasured bright orange, syrupy Scottish soda had its formula changed to reduce sugar content, 10% of customers objected strongly, illustrating the power of familiar tastes to elicit cravings.

So nature and nurture both contribute to the variance in sugar appetite and tolerance.

Quest for Sweetness Without Calories

Because excessive intake is unhealthy, much research aims to replicate sugar’s flavor without its calories. But sugar has complex effects in food, contributing sweetness, texture, bulk, color. Artificial sweeteners struggle to mimic all facets.

A novel rare sugar called allulose tastes extremely sweet but isn’t metabolized, so provides few calories. It could transform low-calorie options for diabetics and allow cutting sugar substantially in foods like caramels.

Do Artificial Sweeteners Disrupt Metabolism?

However, some scientists challenge the assumption that sweeteners are metabolically inert. When sweeteners are consumed with carbohydrates, they seem to interfere with the body’s ability to regulate blood glucose and cause glucose intolerance, a precursor to diabetes.

Small theorizes there are taste receptors throughout the gut, not just the mouth. These gut taste receptors get confused by the mismatch between detected sweetness and actual calories arriving, which then impacts future absorption and metabolism of real sugars.

This suggests artificially sweetened foods may have unintended consequences and should be consumed cautiously, despite containing no calories themselves.

We All Respond Uniquely to Sugar

In summary, modern science is revealing the multifaceted variability in humanity’s relationship to sugar, at genetic, biological, and environmental levels.

While very high intakes pose health risks, individuals legitimately process and enjoy sweets to differing degrees.  So customized dietary recommendations based on personal traits are likely needed, rather than blanket restrictions. Until science unravels all the intricacies of sugar metabolism, moderation and awareness of our own bodies’ responses will serve us best.

Workout and Fitness News

Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.