Humans are hard-wired to like sweet foods. Sweet tastes are strongly tied to the reward centers in our brain, and can actually relieve pain and reduce symptoms of depression, PMS, and stress. (1)
Unfortunately, these properties strongly dispose us to over-consume sweeteners, and it’s pretty clear that the huge quantities of concentrated sweeteners consumed today are harmful to our health.
People are always searching for ways to enjoy sweet foods without the health repercussions, and this is the first post in a series that I hope will help you do just that! But before we jump into the nitty-gritty of different types of sweeteners and how they can fit into a healthy diet, I want to set the stage with some history and evolutionary background.
Did #Paleo man eat as much sugar as we do? You may be surprised!
Sweeteners in Evolution
Most of us primarily think of taste – especially sweetness – in terms of enjoyment, but sweetness is not just another source of pleasure. As omnivores, hunter-gatherers had a wide array of potential foods to choose from, and the sweet taste sensation is one of the ways humans could identify safe, non-poisonous foods with a high nutrient-to-toxin ratio.
Honey was the only concentrated sweetener available for much of human history, and common belief is that honey was quite rare, and only consumed in small quantities. While this is undoubtedly true for many hunter-gatherer groups, it doesn’t appear to be true for all of them.
We can get an idea about the role of honey in Paleolithic diets by studying modern hunter-gatherer societies like the Hadza; during the wet season, honey comprises up to 20% of their diet by weight. (2) Given honey’s caloric density, this likely represents a much larger portion of their total calories. When asked to rank their dietary staples in order of preference, honey was ranked highest, above meat, berries, tubers, and baobab (a large tree fruit). The Mbuti pygmies of the Congo can obtain up to 80% of their calories from honey, although only during the 2-month honey season. (3)
One interesting paper hypothesized that honey was actually far more abundant throughout early history than we typically acknowledge, and that the consumption of honey at certain times in history may rival our current consumption of sweeteners. (4) Some researchers have even posited that honey, along with meat and starchy tubers, helped make us human by providing concentrated glucose to support brain growth. (5) Although it’s impossible to know exactly how much honey early humans had access to, we do know that people went to great lengths to obtain honey, even when other foods were more readily available. (6, 7)
The Evolution of Sweeteners
Once hunter-gatherers began settling down, humans gradually discovered new sources of concentrated sugars. Maple syrup was introduced by Native Americans, and became popular in North America. (8) Jaggery, produced from sugar cane, became popular in India and its use is still widespread. (9) Some sweeteners common in early China include “tree honey” and “thorn honey,” both extracted from different plants. (10) And in the 17th or 18th century, table sugar surpassed all of these traditional foods and became the world’s leading sweetener. (11)
Fast forward to 1970, when the average American’s consumption of added sugar was 23.7 teaspoons per person per day according to loss-adjusted availability data. (12) By 2012, that amount had increased to 24.7 teaspoons, and the percentage of total calories obtained from sweeteners had risen from 13% in 1977 to 16%. (13) Significantly, 80% of this increase was from sugar-sweetened beverages, rather than solid food.
Changing Attitude Towards Sweeteners
Amidst all this background, I think it’s particularly interesting to note the shift in attitude towards sweeteners. For modern hunter-gatherers like the Hadza, a sweetener (honey, in their case) is just another food, albeit a highly prized one. We can probably assume that traditional hunter-gatherers didn’t have a conception of “healthy” and “unhealthy” like we do today, and if they did, they probably would have classified concentrated sweeteners as one of their “healthiest” foods, because they provide ample nutrients without causing illness.
Now our beliefs are quite different – opposite, in fact. Most of us have become conditioned to think of “sweet” as “unhealthy,” and instead of using sweet taste as a guide to the most calorie-dense foods, people are trying to figure out how to avoid caloric density, while still enjoying sweet tastes. This can be seen in the widespread use of non-caloric sweeteners, as well as the current research into sweet-tasting proteins that could sweeten foods without triggering an insulin response. (15)
And along with the desire to limit caloric density in general, there’s now a growing fear of sugar itself, and refined sweeteners such as table sugar and HFCS are often labeled ‘toxins.’ This is a dramatic shift from our evolutionary background, where sweetness signaled safety and a lack of toxins.
This brief history of sweeteners leaves us with many questions. If the Hadza obtain a large portion of calories from sweeteners, why can’t we? What makes traditional sweeteners like honey so different from table sugar, and for that matter, which sweeteners are healthiest? Why has sugar become such a bane to our health? Is it really addictive? And ultimately, how can sweeteners fit into a healthy diet? These are all questions I’ll attempt to answer in subsequent posts.
I’m open to suggestions for what to cover in this series, so if you have any thoughts or burning questions, feel free to leave them in the comments! Thanks for reading, everyone.