The Nature of Sugar, Culturally Speaking

Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

  • About

Several characteristics of sugar stand out, the most important being that it is sweet. (Saying so is not quite so vacuous as it sounds.) Our species’ diligent quest for sweetness appears to be universal, or nearly so. Though in some interesting cases, sugar has been tabooed, there is no evidence of any human group wholly uninterested in foods that taste sweet. Food taboos on the eating of a specific plant, animal, or other food (e.g., salt, eggs, blood) are common, but there is no taboo for sweetness. Nor has it been proven that a predisposition toward sweetness in humans and other primates is only determined genetically. Yet the evidence pointing to just such a structurally determined, species-wide, inborn liking for sweet is powerful. Many humans worldwide react positively to sweetness, and human infants everywhere exhibit signs of pleasure when given sweet-tasting liquids. The Eskimo and Inuit people of Alaska and Canada liked sucrose the first time they were given it, and they apparently chose to continue eating it even though it caused them digestive discomfort (Bell et al., 1973; Jerome, 1977). If this liking is indeed structurally determined, it may have evolved in relation to the sweetness of ripe fruit—a sign of edibility, as some writers have suggested.