If Sugar Is Poison, Why Is Everyone Eating Cupcakes?
Are cupcakes really a comfort food?
Judith J. Wurtman Ph.D.
The Antidepressant Diet
My favorite hole-in-the-wall used-book shop is gone. A sparkling, pastel-colored shop selling designer cupcakes has replaced it, and judging from the line of moms and their kids every afternoon, it has become the preferred spot for an after-school snack.
Cupcakes are everywhere. Those muffin-shaped cakes, with their teeth shattering sweet frosting, are front and center in the bakery section of my supermarket, the neighborhood frozen yogurt shop and a nearby gourmet chocolate store. The number of new cupcake venues may be slowing down, but shops selling organic Brussels sprouts certainly have not replaced them.
I have nothing against cupcakes, other than their tendency to leave frosting on my nose when trying to eat their non-frosting underbelly. (Does anyone eat a cupcake with a fork?) But their popularity is puzzling. Why are we eating cupcakes? Aren't they full of sugar? Aren't we being informed, even by the venerable television show "60 Minutes," that sugar can do irreversible harm to our brains and body by producing addictions similar to cocaine, weakening athletic performance and causing deep depression following its high? Indeed, if all of these claims are true, should those moms buying cupcakes for their 7 year olds be accused of child abuse?
In the old days, sugar's evil side effects seemed pretty much limited to cavities or destroying your appetite, as in, "Stop eating cookies -- you won't be hungry for supper." Now the sugar police are telling us that even the smallest amount of sugar should be avoided, regardless of how important it might be as an ingredient in tomato sauce or sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbage. If this sugar prohibition ever takes hold, will we resort to buying the white stuff on street corners or in specially designated "Sugar Houses?"
It may be impossible to convince those who believe that sugar is addictive of any alternative explanations for the reason people crave and consume sweet foods. But for those of us who are beginning to wonder if we must give up using catsup because it has sugar, or feel guilty at sucking on a hard candy, it is worth thinking of some explanations as to why people like sugar, other than its allegedly addictive nature.
Consider these facts:
1. Milk is the first taste an infant experiences, and clearly the acceptance of this taste by the nursing baby indicates how natural it is to enjoy a sweet taste. Moreover, it is doubtful that sugar addiction is triggered by breastfeeding.
2. In nature, foods that taste sweet are usually safe to eat; foods that have a bitter taste may contain something toxic. Our innate pleasure in sweet taste and aversion to bitter probably prevented our ancestors from eating poisonous foods.
3. Sucrose, or what we call table sugar, contains fructose and glucose. Fructose, the sweeter of the two molecules, is the sugar also found in fruit, yet people aren't addicted to apples because of fructose. Glucose, the other molecule in sucrose, is the substance to which all carbohydrates are digested, and provides energy to our bodies. Might people become addicted to brown rice or steel-cut oatmeal because these carbohydrates end up as the sugar glucose in our digestive tract?
4. Hormones or seasonal changes in sunlight can trigger sugar cravings and impulsive, unstoppable sugar intake. Yet this addictive-like eating of sweets will stop as suddenly as it starts. Women with PMS whose mantra is, "I could kill for chocolate!" lose all interest in eating sugary foods once their PMS is over. Addictions don't follow this pattern.
5. Carbohydrate restriction may lead to sugar binging because restricting carbohydrates decreases brain serotonin, the neurotransmitter that turns off carbohydrate craving. The longing for sweets has the same urgency as the craving for water when thirsty. The solution, as we point out in our book, The Serotonin Power Diet, is to eat low or fat-free carbohydrates on a specific schedule so the brain makes new serotonin.
6. When insulin's activity is compromised by diabetes and/or obesity, insufficient tryptophan may enter the brain to produce serotonin. The lack of this neurotransmitter can cause addictive-like eating of sugary carbohydrates. Even small amounts of weight loss improve insulin sensitivity, which is assisted by increasing serotonin production, and can help stop the addictive eating.
7. The supposed "crash" that comes a few hours after carbohydrates are eaten is probably due to decreased levels of serotonin. Eating a sweet or starchy carbohydrate will increase serotonin levels for about 2-3 hours and, when it wears off, whatever stress or bad mood existed before eating could return. This is no different from experiencing a headache again after a pain reliever has worn off. (So far, unfortunately, no timed-released sweet or starchy food has been developed to maintain serotonin levels as long as stress is high.)