One day in my freshman year, my friend and I were passing by the dessert shelf in Dana dining hall after finishing our dinner. Looking at the neatly stacked, creamy whoopie pies in the tray, my friend sighed: “I wish I could have another one, but I shouldn’t”. Then, a brilliant idea struck me: she could open up the whoopie pie and take just the less creamy half of it. “Don’t worry”, I reassured her, “someone else shares your concern and will be relieved to find the half you left”. I was making the suggestion mostly to indulge my nonconformist tendency, but at the time, only a month after moving to this country, I noticed the contradictions surrounding desserts in the United States. Many people here delight in finishing up their meals with a sweet treat, and yet feel guilty about it afterward. And while stores here are full of sugary brownies and cookies, you’ll also find as many – if not more – sugar-free snacks. Although we recognize that excessive consumption of sugary desserts like pies and cookies contributes to obesity and health problems, the deeply rooted cultural and personal significance of desserts makes it difficult to abandon or modify them.
The type and amount of desserts we consume have a definite impact on our health. For this post, I will focus on grain-based desserts like cake, cookies, and pies, since they are very popular in the US and have more sugar than other types of dessert. A survey from 2006, for instance, found that grain-based dessert is the biggest source of calorie for all age groups in the US.(1) You may wonder, how can a few brownies contain more calories than plates of pasta and meat? However, if we remember that grain-based desserts are made mostly from white flour, sugar, and butter, it is unsurprising that they are much more calorie-dense than our main courses. Moreover, grain-based desserts usually contain a lot of added sugar, which is linked to high blood pressure, inflammation, abnormal blood lipid and heart diseases.(2) In fact, while the CDC recommends that added sugar make up no more than 10% of our calorie intake, this figure is over 14% in reality, as shown by a study in 2014. (3),(4) The impact of desserts on public health has also been recognized by the government. Last year, the USDA updated its guidelines for the Child and Adult Food Care Program, which subsidizes the food expenses of day care centers and emergency shelters, so that grain-based desserts were no longer eligible for reimbursement due to their high level of added sugar and fat.(5) Therefore, the consensus in the US seems to be that we can live more healthily by eating less grain-based desserts or switching to less energy-dense options.
However, abandoning or restricting our fondness for cookies and cakes is easier said than done. As historian Donna Gabaccia noted, “food and language are the cultural habits humans learn first and the ones they change with the greatest reluctance”.(6) Indeed, desserts form an integral part of our culinary traditions and reflect our history and values. We are what we eat, culturally speaking. In the book Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert, food historian Michael Krondl traces the development of iconic desserts in six different cultures and argues that the apple pie, a treat associated with the common people rather than the higher class in England, symbolizes the colonizers’ and then Americans’ egalitarian values and attachment to a bucolic lifestyle. Indeed, the apple pie is accessible to every homesteader in early America and requires none of the fancy ingredients or complicated steps necessary for the desserts of the Old World’s upper class.(7) Strong connections between desserts and cultural traditions exist in other countries as well. For example, the popularity of desserts made from milk and ghee (clarified butter) in India reflects the religious significance of these ingredients, both derived from the sacred cows and appear multiple times in the earliest Hindu texts.(7) And if Krondl had visited my home country, Vietnam, he would have concluded that our fruit- and bean-based desserts are just as intimately connected to nature and agriculture as the Vietnamese people. Therefore, while cookies and pies add a lot of calories to Americans’ diet, they also provide a cultural identity. How many of us would say no to a warm apple crisp on a chilly autumn day or a frosted sugar cookie at Christmas because of our waistline?
Psychology and economics also play a role in Americans’ attachment to sweet desserts. Research has shown that sugar activates a pleasure response in the brain and reduces feeling of pain.(8) Therefore, many people may prefer a brownie for dessert than a less sweet serving of yogurt or fruit. This is also reflected on a website that lets people rank their favorite comfort food, where the top ten items include many sugary treats like ice cream, chocolate, chocolate chip cookie, and donut.(9) In addition, high-calories snacks tend to be cheaper than fruit, so affordability is another factor preventing people from enjoying healthy desserts.(10)
Consequently, it seems that reducing the amount of sugar in grain-based desserts without changing their form of taste is what we need, and artificial sweeteners were invented for this very purpose. However, the affect of artificial sweeteners on weight gain is complicated. While we expect them to reduce our calorie intake, these sweeteners activate the brain’s pleasure pathway only partially, so people consuming artificially-sweetened desserts may crave and eat more food.(11) In addition, data from humans and animals suggest that artificial sweeteners may dull our insulin response to sweet food, so regular consumption of artificial sweeteners may weaken our ability to handle normal sugar.(12) Overall, the effect of artificial sweeteners on long-term weight and health management seems mixed.
Far from just a source of calorie, desserts provide us with comfort and cultural identify. Therefore, dietary advice aiming to reduce calorie intake must take into account the complex roles of desserts in our lives. And rather than abandoning grain-based desserts or substituting their sugar with non-caloric sweeteners, perhaps we can gradually reduce their sweetness and portion to acclimatize ourselves to a more healthy dietary habit.
- Friedman, Lauren F. “Disturbing chart shows the 25 foods that make up most of the calories Americans eat” Business Insider, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/foods-that-make-up-most-of-the-calories-american-consume-2015-2
- Heid, Markham. “You Asked: Is Eating Dessert Really That Bad For Me?” Time, 2014. Retrieved from time.com/3556608/healthy-desserts/
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Know Your Limit for Added Sugars”. 2016. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-statistics/know-your-limit-for-added-sugars.html
- Drewnowski, Adam, and Colin D. Rehm. “Consumption of added sugars among US children and adults by food purchase location and food source–.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 100.3 (2014): 901-907.
- Michigan State University. “Child and Adult Food Care Program no longer allows grain-based desserts”. Retrieved at http://www.canr.msu.edu/news/child_and_adult_food_care_program_no_longer_allows_grain_based_desserts
- Goody, Cynthia M. , and Lorena Drago. Cultural Food Practices. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2010.
- Krondl, Michael. Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert. Chicago Review Press, 2011.
- Drewnowski, Adam, et al. “Sweetness and Food Preference–3.” The Journal of nutrition 142.6 (2012): 1142S-1148S.
- The Most Comforting Comfort Food. Ranker. Retrieved at https://www.ranker.com/list/the-most-comforting-comfort-food/analise.dubner
- Drewnowski, Adam. “Obesity and the food environment: dietary energy density and diet costs.” American journal of preventive medicine 27.3 (2004): 154-162.
- Yang, Qing. “Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings: Neuroscience 2010.” The Yale journal of biology and medicine 83.2 (2010): 101.
- Swithers, Susan E. “Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements.” Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism 24.9 (2013): 431-441.