Why is There So Much Sugar in our Foods?

People like sweetness cats cannot taste sweetness

Food processors add sugar to foods because people like sweetness. Sugar is not added to cat food because cats cannot taste sweetness.

I was once asked in a Public Radio interview “Why do food processors put so much sugar in processed foods?” The answer is generally obvious, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

As a group, perhaps no ingredient category has been as maligned in recent years as those ingredients that make foods and beverages sweeter. From table sugar (sucrose) to aspartame, from high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to sucralose, many ingredients that add sweetness have been the target of consumer pressure groups to diet plans.

Unlike the other four tastes (saltiness, bitterness, sourness and umami), the preference for sweet tasting foods is innate in humans and many mammals. Even hours-old newborns show pleasure and a preference for sweet tasting products(1,2,3). For example, in a study by researchers J.A. Desor and others, babies less than 84 hours old drank more water sweetened by lactose, sucrose (sugar), glucose or fructose in a three minute period than they did plain water.

It has been theorized that the ability to taste (and like) sweetness gave a survival advantage in that sugars found in fruits, for example, provide a quick energy source. The ability to taste sweetness is genetically based but is not universal among mammals, by the way. The family cat and other members of the Felidae family (tigers, leopards, lions) cannot taste sweetness(4). It has been theorized this was important in their development as carnivores. Also, certain ingredients may taste sweet to some animals, but not to others. Old World monkeys and primates such as baboons can taste that aspartame (NutraSweet) is sweet. However, New World monkeys such as the howler and spider monkeys do not perceive that aspartame is sweet.

This is not to say that people don’t differ in how much they like sweet foods. To some, salty snacks may be more appealing; however, we likely all know people with “sweet tooths” who never saw a confectionery that they didn’t like.

As obesity continues to grow in concern around the world, food manufacturers have responded by adding less sugar or switching to low calorie sweeteners in their products. No-sugar cereals are sold in the marketplace, for example.

However, why do food processors put sugar (or any sweetener) in a food or beverage? Because we like it!

(1) Desor, .JA., Maller, O. and Turner, R.E. 1973 Taste in acceptance of sugars by human infants. J Comp Physiol Psychol. 84, 496-501.
(2) Steiner, J.E. 1977. Facial expressions of the neonate infant indicating the hedonics of food related chemical stimuli. In Taste and Development: The Genesis of Sweet Preference. DHEW Publication no. NIH 77-1068, [JM Weiffenbach, editor], pp. 173-189.
(3) Berridge, KC 2000. Measuring hedonic impact in animals and infants: microstructure of affective taste reactivity patterns. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. ;24(2):173-98.
(4) Li, X, Li, Wang, WH, Cao, J, Maehashi, K, Huang, L, Bachmanov, AA, Reed, DR, Legrand-Defretin, V, Beauchamp1,GK and Brand, JG. 2005. Pseudogenization of a Sweet-Receptor Gene Accounts for Cats’ Indifference Toward Sugar. PLoS Genet. 1:27-35.

— Claudia O’Donnell, Global Food Forums, a conference and seminar organizer

Posted on:January 5, 2012

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