People are funny when it comes to sugar. Last post I wrote about a fundraising event we attended over the weekend to benefit the owners of a local general store that burned down in the night: the owners, who are much beloved by our community, barely escaped with their lives, jumping out the second story windows, and managing to save only one of their three dogs. Another local man who was sleeping in a small building next door was killed.
So the fundraiser was a tremendous outpouring of emotion in response to the sudden and tragic nature of this event. In addition to a massive dinner with live music, there was to be an equally massive silent auction and two different raffles going on throughout the afternoon, as well as a bake sale.
The day before the event, like everybody else, we went to drop off our family’s donations at the firehouse. It was very social, everyone standing around and marveling at the variety and quality of different auction items, (“Have you seen this one?”) But what I reeled at was on the other table: the bake sale table. Goodies of every conceivable shape and size were crowded across two nine foot tables, jostling for space, in the process of being neatly cataloged and labeled by my friend Rhonda. Rhonda was one of the event’s organizers, and she’s nice enough to not only read my blog, but even regularly post comments and interesting sugar-related articles she comes across.
Staring at the spread of frostings, sprinkles, chips, jellies, and coconut cream, I joked with Rhonda that I should take a photo of the awe-inspiring spread to post on my blog.
“Oh no!” she said, genuinely taken aback, “but… this is good!”
I’ve been thinking about her reaction ever since, because I think it has everything to do with how inextricably emotion and food are intertwined in our culture. I mean, of course it’s good, right? The outpouring of emotion was physically visible in response to what was a truly shocking and violent event. People wanted to express love and comfort in the name of store owners Will and Eric- to literally wrap them up in all that is warm and good and predictable, in an effort to make up for the scary thing which has changed their lives forever. What better way to do this than with a nice coffeecake or tray of raspberry thumbprints? How often is dessert intended as, and taken for, a concrete manifestation of love?
Similarly, I was recently at a potluck memorial service (yes, in Vermont we can make anything a potluck) and it struck me in very much the same way: one huge, long table of actual lunch food ran parallel to an equally long and huge table filled entirely with sweets. Again- should we be surprised if the outpouring of emotion naturally gravitated towards carrot cake and not carrots?
I’m not saying this is bad, exactly, but my friend’s reaction made me realize how deep and primal our attachment to sugar-as-love-and-comfort runs. I mean, of course raising money for a good cause is inherently a good thing. But, when we lay out a football field of sugar in the name of comfort, I also think it’s important to take a step back and think about the lesson we’re teaching our children.
Because, after all, who’s going to be eating a lot of those cookies and brownies, anyway? I know this isn’t going to be a popular idea, but I am reminded of how Dr. Robert Lustig explains that handing your kid a soda is the nutritional equivalent of handing your kid a beer.
This is what we know, but don’t want to know: sugar (fructose) is a poison, just like some other favorite poisons like alcohol and cigarettes. Alcohol is an acute poison, so we notice its effects right away. Fructose, on the other hand, is more like cigarettes, in that it’s a chronic poison, we notice its effects only after years of exposure, when it can be harder to pinpoint and easier to debate… or ignore.
What Rhonda’s comment made me realize is that it’s all well and good to demonize sugar when you’re talking about the Big Bad Corporations, sneaking high fructose corn syrup into our ketchup and mayonnaise; it’s another thing entirely to go after grandma’s lovingly baked molasses cookies. The problem is, nutritionally your body can’t tell the difference between the “bad” sugar (from Big Food Inc.) and “good” sugar (from Grandma)… fructose is fructose. And an excess of fructose consumption, now at it’s highest levels ever and still climbing, is making our society sick.
I imagine that one day, when the data has become so abundant as to be incontrovertible (as also happened, finally, with cigarettes) having a buffet of sugar that rivals the actual food will be considered as socially unacceptable as smoking on airplanes or littering out your car window- things which we as a society once accepted as completely normal yet now we have come to realize the destructiveness of. Nobody’s is trying to say we can’t smoke or drink or throw things away, they’re just saying we have to be careful about how we go about it. Same with sugar.