Friday the 14th of February is Valentine’s Day and the shops are doing a roaring trade in sweet offerings for loved ones. Ads everywhere are encouraging shoppers to prove their love for the opposite sex by buying cards, stuffed toys and hundreds of mostly heart-shaped sweet temptations.
This flurry of commercial and gastronomic activity so soon after the Christmas and New Year indulgences, is of course fuelled by shopkeepers wanting to boost their sales, which would otherwise be at an annual low while we recover from our Festive Season spending sprees.
What is the role that sugar and confectionary, sweetened foods and beverages play in our lives?
Our early ancestors regarded sweet foods, such as the odd well-ripened fruit or honeycomb which they extracted with great effort and pain from swarms of angry bees, as a gift of the gods. Sweet food was so scarce that it was afforded a special place in the diet and immediately became associated with special occasions and affection. After all a cave-dwelling woman would know how much her hunter husband loved her when he returned with multiple bee stings triumphantly bearing the golden harvest. So for millennia sweet foods were very rare and associated with a reward for really hard, dangerous work!
The Middle Ages
While the Romans and other civilisations actively kept bees to increase the availability of honey, it remained a sought after and highly prized commodity. Although some populations had learnt to use date, fig and grape syrups, and even a limited amount of sugarcane, honey remained the prime source of sweetness until the end of the Middle Ages.
Sugarcane and slaves
The Arabs imported sugarcane which had originated in India to the western world. For centuries this white delectable substance remained rare and costly, a food of the upper classes. After the voyages of discovery, at the beginning of the 16th century, first the Spanish, and then the Portuguese, discovered how lucrative it was to grow sugarcane in the conquered islands and lands of Central and South America, and sell the harvest in Europe to sugar-hungry populations. Ironically sugar was one of the prime reasons why African slaves were exposed to unspeakable deprivations and sold in the New World. The slaves were needed for the cultivation and harvesting of sugarcane in hot countries such as Cuba and Brazil.
The modern world
Despite the increased production of sugar, the general population in most countries could not afford to eat this treat on a daily basis or in large quantities. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that a number of factors such as increased living standards, coupled with more disposable income, greater production of sugar from cane and beet, more efficient distribution methods and an upsurge in food processing and manufacturing methods that brought sugar to the tables of the entire population. Since then, sugar has been used in hundreds, if not thousands of applications - as a preservative (crystallised fruit and fruit squashes), as a sweetening agent (from breakfast cereals to pastries), and as a luxury item (luscious chocolates and confectionary).
Is sugar bad for you?
The answer to this question is, “No, if you eat it in moderation”, and “Yes, if you gorge yourself on sweet foods and beverages all the time.” Once again the sensible way to eat sugar and sweetened foods, is to be moderate and not overdo things. In fact, using a spoon of sugar on your oats porridge in the morning, or jam on a slice of wholewheat bread, makes these foods more palatable and increases the likelihood that people will stick to a low-fat diet.
The real problem is that many sweet foods contain masses of fat - chocolates, cakes, biscuits, tarts and pies, are all loaded with fat which contributes to the high energy content of these foods and makes you fat if you overindulge.
Sugar as a carbohydrate contributes 17 kJ/gram to the diet, while fat will gives you a whopping 37 kJ/gram. So when you are trying to slim, it is a good idea to cut down on fatty foods and to use moderate quantities of table sugar to make low-fat foods more palatable. Research has actually shown that people who eat moderate amounts of sugar and little fat, are usually lean and not inclined to gain weight.
So if you sprinkle a spoon of sugar on your cooked breakfast cereal and eat a spoon of jam on your wholewheat bread and have a dessert once in awhile, you will certainly not ruin your diet. And giving your loved one a sweetie or two on Valentine’s Day, is part of an age-old tradition of showing love and affection.
If you have any diet queries, post a question or message on The Message Board. – ( Dr I V van Heerden, registered dietician, March 2007)
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