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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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