Sweet like chocolate?

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

For many Christians, the festival of Easter – hijacked, reduced, reconstituted – has become a bit of a sham. For God’s sake don’t let anyone do this to your Easter egg.

The government is worried about obesity. The solution, it feels, is to take all the foods that make us fat, then remove some calories. So now there’s a calorie cap: each Mars bar, for example, will have only 250 calories and in a couple of years calories in “a vast number of products” will be reduced by about a third.

A bleak prospect. For one thing, I can’t help but worry that this drive will spark a violent escalation in the kind of advert in which a thin woman fulsomely eats a chocolate bar at you. According to the writing on the screen, the bar contains barely enough energy to keep a canary alive – yet the eater is utterly blissful. “I can’t believe this bar won’t make me fat,” she says. “It makes me feel so good!” She’s lying. It doesn’t.

For companies that make fatty foods, the race is on to remove calories without tampering with taste. But health-conscious “chocolate scientists” have been trying to do this for years. In 2009, Swiss chocolatiers came up with a product that had 90 per cent fewer calories. It was given the Wonka-like nickname “wunder bar” but didn’t catch on. And in 2010, scientists at Birmingham University created a bar, mostly out of water, which they said tasted “exactly like” ordinary chocolate. The scientists were telling the truth. Yet everyone still prefers ordinary chocolate.

The golden ticket seems to be a substance that tastes and smells and feels exactly like chocolate but has far fewer calories. But the body is not so easily tricked. It turns out that the most pleasurable thing about a chocolate bar isn’t the taste – it’s the calories. The brain picks these up even if the tongue doesn’t. Can’t believe it’s not butter? Your brain can.

Scientists at Duke University in North Carolina demonstrated this using mutant mice. The mice were missing a TRPM5 channel, the receptor that detects sweetness. Place a dish of sugared water and a dish of normal water in front of these mice and they won’t be able to tell the difference – not at first, anyway. But the scientists then left the mice with the two dishes for several hours. Returning, they found the sugar water almost gone and the plain water barely touched. Even though the mice couldn’t taste the sugar, they had worked out they preferred it.

Pleasure principle

How could this be? The researchers looked at levels of dopamine, the reward chemical, in the mice’s brains. Sure enough, after the mice consumed the sugar water, there was a huge spike in pleasure.

Their reward systems weren’t responding to the sweetness in the sugar; they were responding to the calories. That’s why even the best fake chocolate in the world won’t work.

So this Easter, don’t try to trick your brain with health food. It will sniff you out. This ancient, calorie-demanding organ can’t be tricked by a few government initiatives and a little extra sweetener. It’ll simply make you eat more.

Or, to quote Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: “Uh –uh – life – uh – uh – uh – finds a way.”

Easter turkey: low-calorie chocolate, Getty images.

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

Photo: Getty
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The vitriol aimed at Hillary Clinton shows the fragility of women's half-won freedom

The more I understand about the way the world treats women, the more I feel the terror of it coming for me.

I’m worried about my age. I’m 36. There’s a line between my eyebrows that’s been making itself known for about the last six years. Every time I see a picture of myself, I automatically seek out the crease. One nick of Botox could probably get rid of it. Has my skin lost its smoothness and glow?

My bathroom shelf has gone from “busy” to “cluttered” lately with things designed to plump, purify and resurface. It’s all very pleasant, but there’s something desperate I know at the bottom of it: I don’t want to look my age.

You might think that being a feminist would help when it comes to doing battle with the beauty myth, but I don’t know if it has. The more I understand about the way the world treats women – and especially older women – the more I feel the terror of it coming for me. Look at the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s book. Too soon. Can’t she go quietly. Why won’t she own her mistakes.

Well Bernie Sanders put a book out the week after the presidential election – an election Clinton has said Sanders did not fully back her in –  and no one said “too soon” about that. (Side note: when it comes to not owning mistakes, Sanders’s Our Revolution deserves a category all to itself, being as how the entire thing was written under the erroneous impression that Clinton, not Trump, would be president.) Al Gore parlayed his loss into a ceaseless tour of activism with An Inconvenient Truth, and everyone seems fine with that. John McCain – Christ, everyone loves John McCain now.

But Hillary? Something about Hillary just makes people want to tell her to STFU. As Mrs Merton might have asked: “What is it that repulses you so much about the first female candidate for US president?” Too emotional, too robotic, too radical, too conservative, too feminist, too patriarchal – Hillary has been called all these things, and all it really means is she’s too female.

How many women can dance on the head of pin? None, that’s the point: give them a millimetre of space to stand in and shake your head sadly as one by one they fall off. Oh dear. Not this woman. Maybe the next one.

It’s in that last bit that that confidence racket being worked on women really tells: maybe the next one. And maybe the next one could be you! If you do everything right, condemn all the mistakes of the women before you (and condemn the women themselves too), then maybe you’ll be the one standing tippy-toe on the miniscule territory that women are permitted. I’m angry with the men who engage in Clinton-bashing. With the women, it’s something else. Sadness. Pity, maybe. You think they’ll let it be you. You think you’ve found the Right Kind of Feminism. But you haven’t and you never will, because it doesn’t exist.

Still, who wouldn’t want to be the Right Kind of Feminist when there are so many ready lessons on what happens to the Wrong Kind of Feminist. The wrong kind of feminist, now, is the kind of feminist who thinks men have no right to lease women by the fuck (the “sex worker exclusionary radical feminist”, or SWERF) or the kind of feminist who thinks gender is a repressive social construct (rechristened the “trans exclusionary radical feminist”, or TERF).

Hillary Clinton, who has said that prostitution is “demeaning to women” – because it absolutely is demeaning to treat sexual access to women as a tradeable commodity – got attacked from the left as a SWERF. Her pre-election promises suggest that she would probably have continued the Obama administration’s sloppy reinterpretation of sex discrimination protections as gender identity protections, so not a TERF. Even so, one of the charges against her from those who considered her not radical enough was that she was a “rich, white, cis lady.” Linger over that. Savour its absurdity. Because what it means is: I won’t be excited about a woman presidential candidate who was born female.

This year was the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and of the Abortion Act. One of these was met with seasons of celebratory programming; one, barely mentioned at all. (I took part in a radio documentary about “men’s emotional experiences of abortion”, where I made the apparently radical point that abortion is actually something that principally affects women.) No surprise that the landmark benefiting women was the one that got ignored. Because women don’t get to have history.

That urge to shuffle women off the stage – troublesome women, complicated women, brilliant women – means that female achievements are wiped of all significance as soon as they’re made. The second wave was “problematic”, so better not to expose yourself to Dworkin, Raymond, Lorde, Millett, the Combahee River Collective, Firestone or de Beauvoir (except for that one line that everyone misquotes as if it means that sex is of no significance). Call them SWERFs and TERFs and leave the books unread. Hillary Clinton “wasn’t perfect”, so don’t listen to anything she has to say based on her vast and unique experience of government and politics: just deride, deride, deride.

Maybe, if you’re a woman, you’ll be able to deride her hard enough to show you deserve what she didn’t. But you’ll still have feminine obsolescence yawning in your future. Even if you can’t admit it – because, as Katrine Marçal has pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, our entire economy is predicated on discounting women’s work – you’ll need the politics of women who analysed and understood their situation as women. You’ll still be a woman, like the women who came before us, to whom we owe the impossible debt of our half-won freedom.

In the summer of 2016, a radio interviewer asked me whether women should be grateful to Clinton. At the time, I said no: we should be respectful, but what I wanted was a future where women could take their place in the world for granted. What nonsense. We should be laying down armfuls of flowers for our foremothers every day.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.