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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En français, s'il vous plaît! EU lead negotiator wants to talk Brexit in French

C'est très difficile. 

In November 2015, after the Paris attacks, Theresa May said: "Nous sommes solidaires avec vous, nous sommes tous ensemble." ("We are in solidarity with you, we are all together.")

But now the Prime Minister might have to brush up her French and take it to a much higher level.

Reuters reports the EU's lead Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, would like to hold the talks in French, not English (an EU spokeswoman said no official language had been agreed). 

As for the Home office? Aucun commentaire.

But on Twitter, British social media users are finding it all très amusant.

In the UK, foreign language teaching has suffered from years of neglect. The government may regret this now . . .

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.