Spurred by all the bad news about sugar, writer Daniel Duane goes without it for a month to determine whether the payoff is worth the pain.

By Daniel Duane
Updated June 05, 2017

Spurred by all the bad news about sugar, writer Daniel Duane goes without it for a month to determine whether the payoff is worth the pain.

Before I abandoned all sugar for a month, I thought it would be easy. I’d read the headlines, after all. I knew a diet high in sugar was a factor in heart disease and almost every other health nightmare, so I’d long since replaced the brown sugar on my oatmeal with olive oil and salt (which, I must say, makes for a remarkably delicious breakfast). I’d stopped putting ketchup on my burgers and fries, and I’d even cut my chocolate-chip-cookie binges to maybe once or twice a week. I figured going that extra mile—avoiding absolutely all sugar—would be as simple as ending my meals with good French cheese. But the cold-turkey approach turned out to be a lot harder than I’d imagined.

First of all, it was just plain tough to quit, for reasons well understood by science. A recent study at Connecticut College, for example, involved feeding rats Oreo cookies, cocaine or morphine at a particular place on a maze (lucky rats). The big surprise was that Oreo cookies produced emotional attachments to the place of treat delivery on par with hard drugs, which explains the deep emotional yearning I began to feel every time I passed the Little Bee bakery during my first week of self-denial. Other research has shown that sugary foods light up the same pleasure-and-reward brain circuitry as opiates. Gorging on sugar changes those parts of the brain in much the way drug addiction does; cutting off sugar produces similar markers of withdrawal.

The good news, after a week or so, was that as my cravings faded and my blood sugar stabilized, I could focus my attention on how to taper off lunch or dinner with something non-sweet: perhaps something rich like marcona almonds or blue cheese. But it turns out that fat is not a satisfying substitute for sugar. Consider another one of my favorite studies of all time, in which scientists at the Oregon Research Institute asked teenagers to sit inside MRI machines while drinking chocolate milkshakes. (Not quite as lucky as the rats, but not bad.) Researchers varied the fat and sugar content of the shakes and took brain scans showing that high-fat ones activated brain regions associated with visual beauty and romantic love, while those that were high in sugar triggered brain regions associated with pleasurable reward, psychopathology and drug addiction. Put another way, those creamy lumps of Humboldt Fog were very nice but could not compare to the half-crazed chocolate ecstasies that always sent me rummaging through cabinets for stale scraps of last year’s Scharffen Berger Bittersweet.

The cheese course as a substitute for dessert, however, did connect me to a culinary history that goes back to the early 1600s. Before that time, “the concept of a ‘dessert’ as a sweet dish separate from the main meal did not yet exist,” writes Brian Cowan in Food: The History of Taste. Instead, borrowing from Arabic cuisine, medieval European cooks used sugar as a seasoning in much the way we still use it for barbecue, chili con carne and many fine Asian dishes. The end-of-meal sweet seems to have emerged only after New World slave plantations made sugar cheap and abundant. To many chefs, relegating sugar to the dessert course was a positive change. “To me, great food is delicate, with flavors that dance on the tongue,” said David Kinch, chef-owner of Manresa in Los Gatos, California. “Sugar flies in the face of that. It’s heavy, it suppresses appetite and it causes palate fatigue—it deadens the sense of taste, and it pairs terribly with wine, which is why it has its place at the end of the meal.”

“To what extent is a meal not even considered a meal unless there’s something sweet at the end?” asked chef Daniel Patterson of Coi in San Francisco. “I mean, could I make you something for dessert that would be delicious and have no refined sugar? Yes. Would it satisfy you? I don’t know.” When pressed to suggest something, Patterson made the eminently sensible and delicious-sounding, but not quite on-point, suggestion of a granita made from peak-season fruit, “like a shaved grape-juice ice with a little lime and salt to sharpen the flavor.”

My pastry-chef friends drew a blank when I asked how they would end a dinner if they couldn’t use sugar. Anne Walker, for example, mother of my daughter’s total BFF and, by coincidence, the owner of San Francisco’s beloved Bi-Rite Creamery, let the phone go silent before she said, “Well…are we allowed to use booze?” A similar response came from Gillian Shaw, my downstairs neighbor and the owner of the excellent Black Jet Baking Company: “Yeah, I don’t know. Bourbon? Because, I swear, people used to come up to us at our pastry stand and say, ‘So…do you have anything that’s sugar-free and gluten-free and fat-free?’ and I always felt like screaming: ‘Get a handle on yourself! What are you doing at a pastry stand!?’”

Kinch came the closest to a real suggestion when he mentioned playing around with herbal flavors that have, as he put it, an end-of-meal quality—as in mint, basil, sorrel, chervil, anise hyssop and lemon balm. Sorrel, he pointed out, has a lemony acidity that makes a great palate cleanser. So I gave herbs a shot by stewing fresh mint leaves from the grocery store in hot water, creating a tisane that was indeed a refreshing, cleansing and relaxing way to taper off a meal of steak and potatoes. I also got a lovely suggestion from Kinch’s pastry chef at Manresa, Stephanie Prida. She confessed that she typically puts out fruit for guests who don’t want refined sugar, but then she let her imagination wander to a truly transporting possibility: goat-milk shaved ice with unsweetened chocolate ganache and chopped almonds fried in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt.

Before I could try this at home, however, Patterson emailed to let me know that he’d been farming small plots of stevia, the ultra-sweet but sugar-free green herb. He’d begun making up desserts with it and concluded that it worked beautifully where sweet flavor was the key—like in the poaching liquid for a pear. Stevia did not work, he said, for any preparation that depended upon sugar’s curious chemistry. Ice cream, for instance, freezes too rigidly in sugar-free versions. Giving up sweetness, it seemed, didn’t finally interest Patterson. “It’s like saying, ‘What if you gave up the word and?’ ” he told me. “You could probably make up a lot of sentences, but sooner or later you’ll want to say something and find out you can’t.”

In the end, I mostly agreed. Fresh herb tisanes and Steph Prida’s dessert—which I did make eventually—both turned out to be exquisite ways of ending a meal. But life’s too short to cook without a full pantry. So please, pass the cookies.

San Francisco–based writer Daniel Duane is the author, most recently, of How to Cook Like a Man.