Sweet Preferences: Do You Have a Sweet Tooth?

Our desire for sweet food spans back throughout our evolution; sweetness would have helped our ancestors identify foods with more energy and essential nutrients. What was once advantageous is now a driving force behind our obesity epidemic and the rise of chronic diseases. Do you have a sweet tooth that you just can’t satisfy? This article will give you some of the science behind food preferences, with a focus on sweets.

Sweet taste receptors are located in both our mouths and intestines. When they are stimulated, a cascade occurs in our brain; pleasure is ultimately derived. Furthermore, the brain circuitry from sweets has some overlap with the response from addictive drugs such as opiates. Sweets also have pain-reducing properties; this can be easily seen in babies, where a sweet drink will reduce their response to painful stimuli. Sweeter foods can help alleviate PMS and stress, which is why they can be labelled as ‘comfort’ foods. Sweet preferences are associated with the sensitivity to their mood changing effects.

Many factors influence the development of food preference in kids, starting with the mother’s diet while in utero or breast feeding. The ability to detect levels of sweetness is present in newborns; babies will notably consume more liquid if it’s sweetened. When distressed, the face of a baby will relax (and often smile) while consuming a sweeter beverage. When a stranger feeds a baby something sweet, the baby will not only be calmed but also show a preference for that individual in the future; a secret way to win a baby’s affection. Behavioral controls with sweet tastes are clear even in early life.

Babies and young children base many of their choices of food off of sweetness and familiarity. Furthermore, early exposure to sweetened foods leads to an increased preference later in life. Development of food preference depends on past experience, energy density, taste, and social environments during our upbringings.  Current estimates in the USA suggest that added sugar accounts for 15.9% of the caloric intake in children 2–5 years of age, and 18.6% for those aged 6–11. Most of this sugar is found in drinks, predominantly in flavored milk and pop. Our bodies have evolved to prefer, once rare, sweet and energy dense foods; this is intensified during childhood, maybe due to the higher energy needs during periods of growth (although the mechanisms are still widely unknown).

In adults, sweet preferences show a lot of variation; genetics may play a role in terms of taste receptors in our mouths and their sensitivity to levels of sweetness. Many of the attitudes we have toward food predominantly comes from our childhoods, this makes it especially important for us to not reward kids with food. Regardless of the large variation, hedonic (eating for pleasure) responses are universal. Obese individuals have a greater hedonic drive along with a decreased perceived sweetness; preference increases with increased sweetness as BMI increases.  

Low-calorie sweeteners are often used to replace sugar, however concerns over the effect on appetite, taste response, and other factors has arisen. Furthermore, what are the long-term consequences of low-calorie sweetener consumption, especially when introduced during infancy? The role of sweeteners on food preference is an important research area; a better understanding of its consequences is needed.

It’s clear that our sweet preferences largely comes from our childhoods, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost if you have a sweet tooth. Try to eliminate refined sugars from your diet for a span; you’ll notice in just a few days that your cravings will subside. Focus on eating more vegetables and protein (Sunwarrior protein is great), the fiber and protein will help boost satiety, making it easier to say no to dessert items. Still drinking pop? Stop! The amount of sugar in one bottle is outrageous. If you want something fizzy, try carbonated water with lemon juice; this is a great alternative while trying to kick bad habits. The health effects of a high sugar diet are enormous, so remember that you’re worth it when you’re struggling with kicking a sweet tooth.

Sugar consumption has risen dramatically, especially in our youth; at the same time diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and obesity have also shot up. More and more evidence is linking our higher sugar diets with the rise of these chronic diseases. We have an especially hard time today with the increased availability of energy-dense sweet foods; our bodies have evolved to desire these food items. About 35% of Americans fall into a pre-diabetic range, while 12% have diabetes; the occurrence of obesity has risen to 35% of American citizens! Furthermore, people with diabetes are at a fourfold greater risk for heart disease. Don't wait to kick your sweet tooth; there is no time like the present to start showing your body the love (in the form of a good diet) it deserves.

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Goff LM, Cowland DE, Hooper L, Frost GS. (2012) Low glycaemic index diets and blood lipids: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. doi:10.1016/j.numecd.2012.06.002.

Khardori R, Nguyen D. (2012) Glucose control and cardiovascular outcomes: reorienting approach. doi: 10.3389/fendo.2012.00110.

Sonestedt E, Overby N, Laaksonen D, Birgisdottir B. (2012) Does high sugar consumption exacerbate cardiometabolic risk factors and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease? Food Nutr Res.; 56: 10.3402/fnr.v56i0.19104. 

See this and other articles on Jennifer Novakovich's website JennovaFoodBlog.com


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