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Breaking sugar’s hold makes culinary pleasures even sweeter

Having reset my relationship with sugary food, I’m no longer led by my sweet tooth.

By Pen Vogler

What does a toxic relationship look like? The sweet, heady rush followed by doubt and gloom. Small islands of joy in a sea of problems; and yet something – hunger, habit, desire – drives us back. We need an arsenal of support to break free, in which the pre-eminent weapon is knowledge. Thus, through reading and thinking, I’d come to recognise that I had lost the upper hand in my own relationship. This is why I gave up sugar for Lent.

I wasn’t a 20-a-day addict. But a piece of apple or carrot cake with 4pm tea was the punctuation to the office sentence (and a portion of fruit ’n’ veg right there!). A scone is just so easy to eat; it doesn’t require the same degree of commitment as a sandwich or soup. What else gives that gleeful lift to flagging spirits, other than a biscuit?

Before my Lenten abstinence, I set out on a week’s trial run of life without what nutritionists call “free sugars”: sweet stuff that isn’t an integral part of foods such as milk, fruit or grains. We used to think of it as white or brown granules in a bag. But today on packets of manufactured food, both sweet and savoury, it slinks in, attached to an -ose (dextrose, maltose, fructose, etc). This omnipresence desensitises us to sweetness, escalating our consumption, weight, cavities and the profits of Big Food. Every teatime was a lovelorn attempt not to hanker for a syrupy flapjack. After dinner I roamed the kitchen, nibbling fruit and trying not to think of pistachio ice-cream or a square of chocolate. It was hell. I lasted six days.

But it broke me in. The Lenten fast was easier. I began to think of sugar as taboo; as something that other people ate but I didn’t, rather as religious people might think about forbidden meat. After 40 days and 40 nights, the energy peaks and troughs and the sugar lust had subsided (though admittedly, I did think about hot cross buns a lot in the last week).

What I learned is that sugar is not a necessity. For centuries we knew it as a luxury. Having been sparingly used in medieval England as a flavour enhancer for the wealthy, its drawbacks became apparent as it became increasingly available. But still only the elite, such as Elizabeth I, could boast rotten teeth. It began to pour into the European (particularly the British) market thanks to plantations in the “sugar islands” of the Caribbean. Its supporters argued that it was also “wholesome”, meaning, broadly, that it had nutritional benefits. The French physiologist François Magendie was the first to put this to the test. He fed a healthy three-year-old dog nothing but sugar to see whether the animal’s body could generate the “nitrogenous substances” (later understood to be protein) that were missing from the food. Magendie concluded that sugar was not “pre-eminently nutritive” – and that a balanced diet is a good idea.

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This inconvenient conclusion was generally ignored in Britain, where there were other reasons for arguing that sugar was essential. Even after the abolition of slavery, the plantation owners of the Caribbean wielded huge influence, thanks to the quantities of sugar that were helping to fuel factory workers, pacify hungry children, or reward hard-working families with a Sunday pudding. Pumping cheap calories into the masses was vital for the body politic, so Gladstone’s Liberal government of 1868-74 abolished the tax on sugar. For the next century and a half, the idea that sugar should be duty free because it was an essential food went unchallenged, until George Osborne’s “soft drinks industry levy” came into force in 2018.

Since my sugar fast, I have reset our relationship; I’m no longer gaslit by the idea that I can’t control my “sweet tooth”. Baking – this week, a cardamom-scented almond cake – still brings me joy. And what pleasure there is in a sausage roll or Marmite toast, without the nagging feeling that I’m missing out on something sweeter.

Anybody unwilling to go cold turkey to figure out for themselves whether sugar is a luxury or a necessary, nutritive ingredient might take note of the fate of Magendie’s unfortunate dog, which, as he wrote, “expired the 32nd day of the experiment”.

[See also: The wild, herby comforts of nettle soup]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024