Why We Love the Sweet Life

I agree with nutritionists that breakfast is the most important meal, and my idea of the perfect breakfast is an ultra-sweet frappucchino and a brownie, a brownie with chocolate frosting, that is.

Like most people, I have a sugar Jones, and thank goodness a workshop on glycoscience organized recently by the European Science Foundation has underscored the vital role of complex sugars in biological systems.

The researchers were, of course, talking about the science of sugars in things like brain function and the immune system, but someone at that workshop should have brought up how necessary sweets are to the survival of our species.

Where would we be without honey, sugar cane, molasses, maple syrup and corn syrup? Down in the dumps, for sure.

But it's not our fault. It's the fault of our primate heritage.

The human tongue can detect four basic flavors — salt, sour, bitter and sweet, but humans are naturally drawn to sweet because we are primates, animals that evolved eating fruit in the trees.

Monkeys and ape spend their days in the forest searching for ripe fruit. They have been selected to prefer sweet, ripe fruit over unripe, bitter fruit because it has higher sugar content and supplies more ready energy. Ripe fruit also has more water, which can be hard to find high in the canopy.

So it makes sense for primates, including us, to have a highly developed palate for sweet things. And we primates have extended that preference beyond mere fruit.

In the 1990s, William McGrew, now at Cambridge University, reported that chimpanzees used sticks to dip into beehives and extract honey.

And they suffer to get it. Chimps break into a hive with their fingers, ignoring the buzz of angry bees and the sting of those that bite, and get down to business like Winnie-the-Pooh with his hand in the honey jar.

Researchers have also discovered that honey dipping is a multi-cultural chimpanzee behavior; at different sites across Africa, chimps use different sort of tools to pull out the sweet stuff.

With this sweet heritage, it's no wonder that humans followed our sweet tooth out of the forest.

We domesticated sugar cane, a tropical grass, and carried it across the world; Arabs spread sugar cane as their empire grew, Crusaders brought cane back to Northern Europe and Columbus introduced sugar cane plants into the Caribbean where it grew like a weed.

Once people figured out how to extract sugar from beets and corn that grew in more temperate climates, there was no turning back. Today, according to Sugar Knowledge International, an independent sugar technology organization, we eat 120 million tons of sugar a year, and it's an expanding market.

As the food industry has discovered, pop a little (or a lot) of sugar into any kind of processed food and we like it a lot, no matter that sugar is not good for us.

Much like a chimpanzee drawn to a hive in spite of the bees, we, too, ignore the stinging consequences of bad teeth and thick waistlines as we down our personal share of those 120 million kilos of sugar.

And, apparently, I like to down my daily quota before 8 a.m., if possible.



Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link).