At Rigi Capital Partners, we are well aware of the impact that diabetes, obesity and other life style choices have on longevity. The effect of life style choices have been documented since the 1970s.
Forget what we learned in school from that old diagram called the tongue map, the one that says our five main tastes are detected by five distinct parts of the tongue. That the back has a big zone for blasts of bitter, the sides grab the sour and the salty, and the tip of the tongue has that one single spot for sweet. The tongue map is wrong. As researchers would discover in the 1970s, its creators misinterpreted the work of a German graduate student that was published in 1901; his experiments showed only that we might taste a little more sweetness on the tip of the tongue. In truth, the entire mouth goes crazy for sugar, including the upper reaches known as the palate. There are special receptors for sweetness in everyone of the mouth's ten thousand taste buds, and they are all hooked up, one way or another, to the parts of the brain known as the pleasure zones, where we get rewarded for stoking our bodies with energy. But our zeal doesn't stop there. Scientists are now finding taste receptors that light up forsugar all the way down our esophagus to our stomach and pancreas, and they appear to be intricately tied to our appetites.
The second thing to know about sugar: Food manufacturers are well aware of the tongue map folly, along with a whole lot more about why we crave sweets. They have on staff cadres of scientists who specialize in the senses, and the companies use their knowledge to put sugar to work for them in countless ways. Sugar not only makes the taste of food and drink irresistible. The industry has learned that it can also be used to pull off a string of manufacturing miracles, from donuts that fry up bigger to bread that won't go stale to cereal that is toasty-brown and fluffy. All of this has made sugar a go-to ingredient in processed foods. On average, we consume 71 pounds of caloric sweeteners each year. That's 22 teaspoons of sugar, per person, per day. The amount is almost equally split three ways, with the sugar derived from sugar cane, sugar beets, and the group of corn sweeteners that includes high-fructose corn syrup (with a little honey and syrup thrown into the mix).
"That we love, and crave, sugar is hardly news. ... Cane and beets [were] the two main sources of sugar until the 1970s, when rising prices spurred the invention of high-fructose corn syrup, which had two attributes that were attractive to the soda industry. One, it was cheap, effectively subsidized by the federal price supports for corn; and two, it was liquid, which meant that it could be pumped directly into food and drink. Over the next thirty years, our consumption of sugar-sweetened soda more than doubled to 40 gallons a year per person, and while this has tapered off since then, hitting 32 gallons in 2011, there has been a commensurate surge in other sweet drinks, like teas, sports aides, vitamin waters, and energy drinks. Their yearly consumption has nearly doubled in the past decade to 14 gallons a person.
"Far less well known than the history of sugar, however, is the intense research that scientists have conducted into its allure, the biology and psychology of why we find it so irresistible. "For the longest time, the people who spent their careers studying nutrition could only guess at the extent to which people are attracted to sugar. They had a sense, but no proof, that sugar was so powerful it could compel us to eat more than we should and thus do harm to our health. That all changed in the late 1960s, when some lab rats in upstate New York got ahold of Froot Loops, the supersweet cereal made by Kellogg. The rats were fed the cereal by a graduate student named Anthony Sclafani who, at first, was just being nice to the animals in his care. But when Sclafani noticed how fast they gobbled it up, he decided to concoct a test to measure their zeal. Rats hate open spaces; even in cages, they tend to stick to the shadowy corners and sides. So Sclafani put a little of the cereal in the brightly lit, open center of their cages -- normally an area to be avoided -- to see what would happen. Sure enough, the rats overcame their instinctual fears and ran out in the open to gorge.
"Their predilection for sweets became scientifically significant a few years later when Sclafani -- who'd become an assistant professor of psychology at Brooklyn College -- was trying to fatten some rats for a study. Their standard Purina Dog Chow wasn't doing the trick, even when Sclafani added lots of fats to the mix. The rats wouldn't eat enough to gain significant weight. So Sclafani, remembering the Froot Loops experiment, sent a graduate student out to a supermarket on Flatbush Avenue to buy some cookies and candies and other sugar-laden products. And the rats went bananas, they couldn't resist. They were particularly fond of sweetened condensed milk and chocolate bars. They ate so much over the course of a few weeks that they grew obese.
"'Everyone who owns pet rats knows if you give them a cookie they will like that, but no one experimentally had given them all they want,' Sclafani told me when I met him at his lab in Brooklyn, where he continues to use rodents in studying the psychology and brain mechanisms that underlie the desire for high-fat and high-sugar foods. When he did just that, when he gave his rats all they wanted, he saw their appetite for sugar in a new light. They loved it, and this craving completely overrode the biological brakes that should have been saying: Stop.
"The details of Sclafani's experiment went into a 1976 paper that is revered by researchers as one of the first experimental proofs of food cravings. Since its publication, a whole body of research has been undertaken to link sugar to compulsive overeating. In Florida, researchers have conditioned rats to expect an electrical shock when they eat cheesecake, and still they lunge for it. Scientists at Princeton found that rats taken off a sugary diet will exhibit signs of withdrawal, such as chattering teeth."