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Henry M. Zunino Headshot

America's Sugar Addiction Threatens Our Identity

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As a child raised in Italy, I learned early on that experiencing pleasure was an important part of life.

Whether through Michelangelo's inspiring expressions of the human figure across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the clean and tailored lines of Armani clothing in the windows of his store on Via Condotti in Rome, Italian society taught me to appreciate quality above all else because in quality came true pleasure.

Nowhere was this lesson emphasized more than in my mother's kitchen.

Every morning, my day would start the same way. I still remember how the sweet and creamy taste of a glass of fresh milk complemented the tartness of my first bite of a crisp apple, usually followed by the crunchy warmth of a toasted piece of bread with marmalade. It was simple, clean, and delicious. By today's standards, though, where mini cookies and chocolate peanut butter cups are considered cereal, my childhood breakfast was strangely healthy. But my parents weren't particularly health-conscious individuals. I was eating fresh foods because that was the norm. We drank mineral water with every meal. Soda was reserved for special events like the birthday parties of my friends. We savored the sugary drink when we got it because it was an infrequent indulgence.

When I moved to the U.S. in 1994 at the age of 15, I quickly learned that in America, pleasure didn't come from quality but from quantity and immediacy. Sugar was in everything from breakfast cereal to "healthy" yogurt snacks. Soda was readily available any time I wanted in the vending machines at school, and king-size candy bars were large enough to give me a stomachache if I tried to finish them in one sitting.

Twenty years later, as an artisan candy maker, I am always left feeling dismayed by a trip to my local supermarket. Even when you put aside the dizzying array of brightly-colored, artificially-sweetened bags of candy in the candy aisle, there is no doubt that we are a nation addicted to sugar.

From ketchup to canned peaches to bread, sugar is added to practically everything we eat. It's not surprising from a business perspective -- after all, humans crave sugar just as they crave salt and fat. It was only a matter of time before some marketer thought chocolate dipped potato chips was a good idea.

That the overabundance of sugar in our diet has led to a host of health problems, including increased rates of obesity, is no secret. Most recently, a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that the risk for cardiovascular disease death increases exponentially as you increase your consumption of added sugar.

But our sugar-saturated diet doesn't only threaten our physical health. As a society, our overuse of sugar has dulled our ability to appreciate it and the foods we flush it with. A 2011 study found that consuming just two sugary drinks a day can dull our sensitivity to sweet tastes. Given that Americans eat 31 percent more packaged foods, which often add sugar to extend shelf life, than fresh foods, it's no surprise that children today often need their milk to be strawberry pink or chocolate brown in order to drink it.

As we continue to pump our food with added sugar, we not only risk dulling our ability to taste, but risk the very richness of our cultural identity. Regional subtleties in flavor are being masked by a mass produced singular sweet taste. Today, for example, when most Americans think of barbeque sauce, they think of the Kansas City-styled sauce, which is thick and sweet from the sugar in contains. Far fewer people are familiar with the Texas or Lexington-styled sauces, which don't use sugar or the Memphis-style, which uses molasses as a sweetener. When all barbeque sauces begin to taste the same, we lose the opportunity to compare and appreciate the uniqueness in each one.

To be sure, sugar has its place at the table. If people want the option to eat Peeps year-round instead of just at Easter, so be it. However one chooses to consume it though, sugar should be enjoyed in a limited fashion so we can appreciate it when we taste it and still experience the wider pallet of taste possibilities. If everything tastes sweet, then in truth, nothing really is.

In Italy, there is a concept called il piacere della tavola, or "the pleasure of the table." It refers to the joy of eating good food in good company. If we continue to allow the taste of our food to be homogenized through the use of added sugar, we will not only rob ourselves and future generations of a vast and diverse culinary tradition, but an integral part of our human experience.

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