Reading a passionate post about the dangers of aspartame on the blog Pink’s Thinks has put me to thinking about sweetness.

It seems to me that much of what ails our food culture these days can be linked to the human craving for sweetness and, of course, the absence of self control.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying a sweet treat now and then.  But in our culture sugar and sugar-substitutes are no longer ocassional treats–they’re part of nearly every meal and snack we eat.  The health consequences of that are devastating.

Some foods are naturally sweet–fruits and honey for instance.  Sweet foods, like fatty foods, were not a regular part of the human diet early in our evolutionary history.  Because of that, and because they were high in energy, we developed a propensity to binge on them when we found them.  But these days sweet and fatty foods are available anytime we want them and in any quantity we want.  Unless we practice self control, we still binge on these foods.  But because we do so nearly continuously, the consequences are, among other things, obesity, diabetes and cancer.

Think about how often you would have candy or a sugary food when you were a child, then compare that to how often children have such things these days.  That might naturally cause you to think about how much children weigh these days, compared to what they weighed when we were children.

These days most folks start the day with a bowl of sugary cereal.  They drink sweetened drinks all day, snack on candy and have sweetened foods as part of their meals.  That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re having a piece of pie.  Often they don’t even think about the sweetness.  Processed food manufacturers have incorporated sweeteners into nearly everything they make, from bread to ketchup.  Check the ingredient list on nearly any processed food you eat and you’ll find sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or some artificial sweetener like aspartame.  The makers of these products know sweetness in foods is addictive and prompts a person to overeat.  More consumption means more profit for them, so sweetening the food is a no-brainer.

The cheapness of fructose extracted from industrial corn (relative to natural sugar) led to the now well-known ubiquity of high fructose corn syrup.  As our society became fatter and sicker from the sugars, scientists created chemical substitutes that satisfied our craving for sugar, without the calories.  These laboratory creations, things like sacharin and aspartame, are fixtures in our food supply now.  Millions of people drink “diet” soft drinks, for example, to satisfy their craving for sweetness while presumably avoiding the negative health consequences of sugar.  But by ingesting these chemicals they are subjecting their bodies to other health risks.  And, ironically, it is now known that artificial sweeteners tend to stimulate appetite, causing a person to eat more than they would if they had avoided the “diet” drink.  Instead of helping prevent obesity, artificial sweeteners are contributing to it.

There’s nothing wrong with having desert ocassionally.  I’m certainly looking forward to our first blackberry cobbler of the season.  But unless our society begins to exercise some self control, and breaks its addiction to sweetened food, we are going to pay a heavy price for all that sweetness.