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Whispering savory nothings in a post-sugar world.

Joshua David Stein
February 07, 2017

Once upon a time, sweet was good, bitter was bad and the line twixt love and hate was clear. Lovers were sweethearts and children were sweeties. When the waitress asked, “Want some sugar, sugar?” with her coffee pot in one hand and a sugar caddy in the other, the benediction was double and the answer always yes.

But these are not fairy tale times. As Gary Taubes persuasively argues in the new book The Case Against Sugar, there has been no pleasure more malign than sugar than tobacco. Sugar, he writes, is “the principal cause of the chronic diseases that are most likely to kill us, or at least accelerate our demise, in the twenty-first century.” Sugar, he continues, are largely to blame for the fact that “a third of all adults are obese, two-thirds overweight, almost one in seven is diabetic, and one in four to five will die of cancer.” If you are like me, by the time you’ve digested his arguments in their entirety, you’ll fling open the pantry doors, shouting at the canned food stuffs and boxes of pasta as you ransack the ingredient list looking for high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar and glucose, crying “Et tu, Sucré?”

“If sugar goes the way of Big Tobacco, what will become of all those sweet nothings we whisper to each other?”

As, if not more, troubling than the inherent deleteriousness of sugar is the massive cover-up scheme perpetrated by Big Sugar. It’s one thing if sugar was bad and no one knew. But it is something much more sinister if its effects were known but simply kept secret. Yet, that’s what happened. After a scientific consensus began to emerge in the 1950’s that sugar contributed to diabetes and other health maladies, the sugar lobby launched a massive public relations campaign whose main aim was to sow doubt into the minds of the public. It took about twenty years but by the 1970s, writes Taubes, fat had replaced sugar as the macronutrient to avoid. This coup was achieved by paying off scientists and academics, politicians and Mad Men. As the scope of the conspiracy dawns, one can say only Sweet Jesus and forswear sugar forever.

If sugar goes the way of Big Tobacco, as it almost certainly will, what will become of all those sweet nothings we whisper to each other?  Will sweetie and sugarpie become outdated, outmoded and unfashionable terms of endearment like bawcock and mopsy? Will we only call each other sugar in the depths of discord, using it to mean manipulative and toxic? Or will the association endure despite sucrose’s stunning fall from grace?

According to the linguist and author David Crystal, there is at least some precedent for a term of endearment going over to the dark side. In Shakespeare’s time, he says, the word bully (from the Middle Dutch boele) meant “lover.” In Shakespeare’s time, it was a term of endearment. But it gradually accumulated angry undertones until the 17th century, when it came to mean what it does today.

According to Crystal, the commingling of sweet flavors with positive feelings dates back to the 13th century when the terms sweet and sweet heart (and later, sweetheart) first came into usage. But it took until the 1930s for sugar to enter our lexicon as a term of endearment.

Coincidentally, or perhaps causally, the coinage of sugar coincides with a marketing push by the newly formed Sugar Institute—the sugar industry’s trade organization—to sell sugar as a health food. In the 1930s, the Sugar Institute spent thousands marketing sugar “as a means to build up the immune system and fight off colds.”

“In the summer,” Taubes writes, “sugar was pitched as an enhancement of the iced beverages that keep us cool. In the fall, sugar was the solution to mid-afternoon fatigue: “Recent scientific investigations have proved that the eating of sweet cakes, a few pieces of candy, a dish of ice cream or the drinking of a sweet beverage—even a glass of water sweetened with sugar—will revive one in an amazing way.”

With the selling of sugar as sweet sweet panacea, it makes sense that the disembodied pleasurability of sweetness crystallized into a concrete synonym for “loved one.” . Since then, says professor Susanne Højlund Pedersen, an anthropologist at Aarhus university, the association between sugar and goodness has been deepened in myriad ways. “We use sugar as a metaphor for many parts of our lives,” she says. “There’s a big industry of films and writings that play on the concepts of sugar, from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita to Chocolat.”

But nothing can last forever. As the wheel of fortune turns and sugar goes into retrograde, recent studies have shown that not all fats are as bad as we thought either. So, this Valentine’s Day, perhaps we should forego the candy hearts and chocolates and call our lovers not sweetums but “my little lipid!”