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

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.