Rachel Laudan

Why is American Cuisine So Pervasively Sweet?

“Why is American cuisine so pervasively sweet?” asked Naomi Duguid three years ago, the last time we sat down for a chat.

For those of you who don’t know Naomi Duguid, she is the author of a series of cookbooks that depend on her sallying forth into interesting and often dangerous regions and to an extraordinary extent dispensing with the middlemen (people) relied on by so many authors of “ethnic” cookbooks.  Her latest, Taste of Persia, arrived today and will rightly be on all the best-of-2016 lists that will soon begin appearing.  Fine recipes worked out for North America, meticulous research, and an introduction to the current state of one of the world’s greatest cuisines.

So in honor of that book, which many more qualified than I will review, I want to raise her question–which I think exemplifies the questions she takes to her culinary adventures, to the  readers of this blog.

First question, is American cuisine sweet? Oh yes, it is. American sugar consumption is the highest in the world at 126 grams a day.  The Germans, second on the list, eat only 103 grams a day. And the quantity falls off dramatically.

Second question. Is it pervasive? It certainly hit me when I came to the States. Then Americans ate sweet breakfasts. They drank sweet drinks with every meal.  They loved cookies and cakes and muffins.  My visiting English family, on being served corn muffins, asked why Americans ate cake with dinner.

Yet, the sense of sweetness is confined. My American husband find English pies unacceptably sour and English cakes not nearly sweet enough. American friends express upset at the  intense jolt of sweetness of Mexican or Indian sweets.  I think that’s what Naomi meant by pervasive–always there, not super intense.

Third question. If American cuisine is pervasively sweet, what are the historical and political ramifications?

Here my head begins to spin.  Why do certain cuisines depend so heavily on sugar? It can’t just be industrialized food because America is far from alone in eating industrialized food. It can’t be some supposed national character because America has people from all  over.  What does current American consumption say about Sidney Mintz’s idea that there was a symbiotic relationship between the English working class drinking sweetened tea and slavery? What does all this say about plans for a sugar tax?

And, back to Naomi’s original question. I’ve been puzzling to find an answer for the past three years and failed.  Over to all of you. Why is American cuisine so pervasively sweet?

Thoughts and comments, please.

Edit.  Thanks for all the comments here and on FB and Twitter. Clearly a question lots of people have considered. I’ll try to reply later today.

Several have proposed the introduction of inexpensive high fructose corn syrup as the answer.  It does seem to have accentuated the pervasive sweet taste of American food. I think, though, it is not the cause. My memory, having arrived in the States in the early 1970s, is that American food was already pervasively sweet.

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24 thoughts on “Why is American Cuisine So Pervasively Sweet?

  1. Aneela Mirchandani

    Rachel, I wonder if the low-fat craze of decades past had anything to do with it? As fat exited packaged foods, sugar had to make an entrance in order to get food to taste like anything? There was a recent NY Times article about how the sugar industry manipulated FDA recommendations into being neutral about sugar and anti-fat.
    But I agree with you. I find American food intolerably sweet, whether it is soups or breads or pasta sauces and jarred salsas. It drove me to perfect my own rolls recipe because many of my savory recipes were simply ruined by store-bought sweetened rolls.
    Indian desserts are no doubt very sweet, but one has them as an occasional treat (not after every meal) on festivals and the like, and the quantities are much smaller too.

  2. Cooking in Mexico

    I’m sure there are a number of answers to this question, but one answer would be the importance corn plays in American agriculture. Farmers receive a subsidy to grow corn. Corn subsidies totaled $94 BILLION from 1994 to 2014, a huge incentive to grow more corn. And something has to be done with all that corn, hence the prevelence of corn syrup, found in almost all processed foods. I have not researched the presence of the corn syrup and sugar lobby in Washington, but I would expect they have a strong influence.

    Sugar is almost a drug; the sweeter our foods, the more acclimated the palate becomes to sweetness, and wants more for food to continue tasting highly sweet.

    On a personal note, I have almost eliminated sugar from my diet (one has to make an exception for good quality chocolate :) and I have found that low sugar foods now taste very sweet. For a palate that tastes almost no sugar, when it does, wow! Even grapefruit tastes too sweet now. Or has it been hybridized for a greater sugar content to please the consumers, as I suspect?

  3. davschorr

    A guess: All humans are inclined to like sweet (due to its association with once-scarce calories), but most cultures have culinary and alimentary traditions developed in times when sugar was less available, and these traditions act as a brake on the infiltration of sugar, despite its current abundance. Americans are less bound to traditions of these sort and so it is easier for them to give free reign to their biological predilection for sweet food.
    Relatedly, I think that as local cuisines spread globally, it is often the sweet dishes that get adopted fastest and most extensively (that is my personal impression with regard to the Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Persian foods that I have been exposed to in the West). Americans, with their mix of immigrants and cuisines, are most exposed to this.
    It is sort of like the way invasive species often take off in environments that have been subject to significant disturbance, having a harder time infiltrating more robust ecosystems.
    Two related anecdotes:
    1) My wife’s family immigrated to the US from Aleppo about 100 years ago, bringing with them a highly developed (and delicious) cuisine, which the Syrian Jewish community in New York has worked hard to preserve. Their meat dishes include sweet, sour, and savory, but it is the sweet dishes (typically with dried fruits and tamarhind sauce) that are most often made, in what I see as an Americanization of their cuisine.
    2) Israel, where I live, is similar to the US in some ways. The traditional Israeli salad consists of chopped vegetables with a lemon-based dressing, but in recent years restaurants and cafes have added a host of salads to their menus, much as you would find in the US. I have noticed that in most restaurants every single one of these salads is sweet: with beets, fruits, or candied nuts (often all of the above), and sweet dressings. I see this as part of the same tendency for sweet dishes to win out over other flavors in situations of cultural disturbance.

  4. David Vaughan-Birch

    It’s an interesting question-I’ve got an old book by two american authors who trace the history of traditional recipes back to the 19th century, and a common theme is the increased amounts of flour and sugar as time passes. i will try to find the reference for you; you also mention indian cooking, and of course their sweets are intensely sweet. But they also use a lot of sour ingredients like tamarind and green mango powder, it tends to be anglicised savoury dishes that have sweetness added (although you do come across some with palm sugar etc as a background). North African food is quite sweet too, eg Moroccan dishes with honey added?

  5. The Millers Tale

    Please forgive my rambling, semi-formed thoughts- am passengering in a car on the way back from the airport, trying to avoid looking at the Death Race 2000 going on around our car (the M11 is frightening at rush hour).

    High fructose corn syrup is a cheap flavouring and it is possible that when the anti-fat ‘movement’ took hold in the seventies, another way of adding flavour to factory-made foods had to be found. The problem with the cheaper processed foods is their lack of inherent flavour so sugar, salt and hydrogenated fats are tipped in to make up for the lack of fresh ingredients. And from then on you get ‘mission creep’.

    I also think that industrialised methods of raising fruit and vegetables (which includes GMO, seed and plant hybridising) prioritises sweetness over other qualities. Looking at corn, the first descriptor on many seed packets is ‘sweetness’. The same with tomatoes and many varieties of apples. Compare Pink Lady apples with an English Hereford or Egremont russet: the former has a sweet flavour with almost candy notes. The latter does not. Marks & Spencer are selling a grape variety bred to taste like candy floss and bubble gum. That is sweetness at the expense of every other flavour note. And these are being marketed as ‘packed lunch box’ food and kids ‘healthy’ snack food. But they’re LOADED with fructose, I bet. Children lose their ability to appreciate other qualities that fruit and veg have and are taught to value sugar as a flavour.

    Then there’s the ‘sweetness= love’ psychological message. A lot of giving and warm feelings revolves around sweet things: girl scout cookies, bake-offs, gift baskets for sick people. They are rarely filled with sour/savoury/bitter foods. Why sugar has developed this association is, in part I think down to the fact that our first food -human milk- is sweet so the association is there to be exploited.

    Babies naturally attune to the sweetness in breast milk and develop a taste for sweetness which possibly food manufacturers exploit because sugar is the cheapest flavour agent along with salt. We know that too much salt in infant and baby foods is actively dangerous to the renal system and the salt/potassium pump (which is underdeveloped in very young weaned children) but until recently the sugar industry did a real number on us, conning people into believing that fat is the enemy. Health Visitors in the Uk caution against early weaning because of the infant inability to process salt but sugar is not included in the same physiological argument even though its hydroscopic nature means it can be just as harmful- hence the old wives tale of giving sugary feeds to bind a babies digestion up when it had diarrhoea.

    I also have some thoughts on the infantile nature of American food promotion. When everything revolves around children and their needs, might it be possible that this affects the way foods are manufactured and marketed with parents being manipulated to be guided by what the child wants as opposed to needs? (I don’t mean expressed need here, or even felt need but actual physiological need). The child seems to be the sun around which the parental planets revolve which doesn’t seem the healthiest way to raise a child to me unless you want to produce a mini- Trump (an extreme example I know). The sweet= love conditioning is strong and if we’re becoming a more infantile society, then quite possibly our tastes will become more infantile too.

  6. Bala

    Rachel, In response to the pervasively sweet question: what about the thought that a sweet diet can create biological changes that establishes a predisposition to sweetness?

  7. Laura Kelley

    Perhaps I live in my own food bubble, but I don’t think that American food is very sweet. I have seen incredible abuse of sugar in Europe with people adding tablespoons of sugar to plain yogurt and 5-6 sugar cubes to a single cup of coffee.

    I think that to really answer the question, you must decide what “American Cuisine,” is and what it isn’t. For me it would not include most processed food, and almost all “fast food,” – I call that garbage – and generally don’t partake. I would however include, barbeque (lots of which has a vinegar-based glaze), all sorts of corn dishes and salads, cornmeal coatings on fish, sauteed greens . . . creole specialities . . . you get the picture.

    Breakfasts have a tendency to be sweet, but t here are lots of us who prefer full English, or just a slice of toast on the run.

    If you limit the question to real food that people actually cook or prepare from fresh ingredients (as opposed to instant, fast, and ready to eat garbage,) I think our food is probably not sweeter than others. Your husband may have a “sweet tooth,” who knows.

    1. Gloria Rodriguez

      Must not confuse being sweet with not being savory. Both flavors can coexist.
      Barbeque, corn dishes and salads are all heavily sweet foods, whether because the sugar is in the recipe (bbq), naturally part of the food (corn), or added in the dressing (salads). The “Americanness” of these dishes can not therefore prove the point that sweetness is not pervasive in American food, but rather the opposite…

  8. Ken Albala

    The above ideas Id agree with, but I think the overwhelming influence is in fact the industry selling food any way they can which means adding sugar and corn syrup. Sure other countries have food industries, but the cuisines in general and more tied to tradition. Here in the US, so many immigrants, people moving around so much, we are much less rooted in tradition and much more wiling to go along with the latest new thing. So if they start putting sugar in the bread and buns, we take it. If it goes in drinks, sure, sweet bbq sauce, of course. breakfast cereal – pour it on. pickles sweet, yes. yogurt, sure. Its a systematic infantilization of the American palate, and we have only the food industry to blame.

    1. Jan Whitaker

      I would agree about the infantilizing of cuisine — as well as the culture in general. Fifty years or so in the past sweet things were seen as primarily for children who had not acquired adult tastes. Adults, for instance, did not drink soda with meals typically. Now there is little distinction between the tastes of children and adults.

      1. The Millers Tale

        Yes, that’s a good point and it chimes with other aspects of adult behaviour which have melded with that of the younger generation. There was a time when teenagehood was very distinct from other ages ‘n stages- and this was seen as psychologically important for the establishment of a separate persona from one’s parents-but now you see parents with tastes and lifestyles very similar to that of their tweens, teens and young adults. From clothing to music, it seems like there’s a reluctance to grow up or a reluctance to be seen as ‘older’ and this applies to food too, I think.

  9. Diane Wolff

    Great question, Rachel. I lived in Japan for a year and asked myself the same question. My then husband and I ate miso soup and rice for breakfast, just like the Japanese. Sometimes a Japanese-style omelette. I have never eaten sweet breakfasts ever since. Even my oatmeal is not sweet. I often find ways to make it savory.

    Japanese sweets, on display in the food floors of all Japanese department stores, are notably light on desserts, most of them made from red bean paste or small candied confections of no more than a bit, the shape being more important than the experience of a lavish dessert. Japanese meals are often quite salty, so one would think that there would be a desire for sweets, but no. The Japanese diet based on fish and rice, with my favorite sea vegetables added, is one of the healthiest in the world and the Japanese are not obese, far from it.

    In the section of Tokyo where expatriates live, Roppongi, one can find theme restaurants such as a coffee house in the Austrian style, where Mozart is played and the decor is nineteenth century Vienna, where dessert carts are wheeled around in the European style, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

  10. ethalfrida

    It certainly is a question I have asked many times. I love sweets but not in my savorys. I do not drink sweet drinks including sweet wines. But yet I find it strange that Mexican breads, cakes and cookies would be considered sweet. It makes me want to go off in search of authentic English dishes to compare especially English desserts. But we do have a seriously horrible dependency on sugar in this country and it is ruining the health of consumers who disregard it.

  11. Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus

    I agree with Ken, and this is something that David Kessler covers at length in his book End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, not to mention Michael Pollan in the Omnivore’s Dilemma. What’s interesting to me given your own work is that there are cuisines of other times and places that seem to have a marked preference for sweetness, namely the cuisines of the medieval Islamic and Christian empires, at least among the wealthy. Is it also because of comparable developments technology and trade that made refined sugar more available, though certainly not on the scale that high fructose corn syrup is available in mass-produced foods in America?

  12. Maggie Topkis

    I agree with Laura Kelley: I don’t think American *cuisine* is particularly sweet. Classic American and Immigrant-American recipes in fact involve LESS sugar than, for example, a lot of Asian food — miso and mirin, for example, are both very sweet. But sugar has historically been very cheap for Americans and American food companies, which figured out early on that loading products up with the stuff could cover up for a lot of cut corners and cheap low-quality ingredients. And with baked goods, it could extends the shelf-life of the products. A win all around for the food industry!

    None of which would have been much of an issue prior to WWII — if someone knows otherwise, please tell me, but my sense is that prior to the post-war era and its massive roll-out of processed foods, visitors to the US did not comment particularly on the excessive sweetness of American food. But with the country’s passionate embrace of processed foods, starting in the late 1940s, we necessarily embraced a much sweeter, less nuanced taste-profile. As a result, not only do we as a country (in other words, not necessarily individual cooks) load our dinner tables with sugary items, from bread to salad dressings, but we have also made our recipes sweeter, putting ketchup in our meat loaves and so forth. Which I guess has become our cuisine.

  13. Becky Weaver

    Thought #1: there are other cuisines with dominant flavors. I’m thinking of chiles, or fish. Things that if your cuisine doesn’t particularly include, you notice in everything, but regular eaters of that cuisine think of as “the taste of well seasoned food.”

    Thought #2: US food traditions are new/disrupted. I think davschorr is on to something, in that regard. Many of us learned about food from commercial sources of some kind, whether manufacturers or restaurants or newspaper columns; not from mothers/grandmothers steeped in a traditional foodway. When Europeans were settling here, sugar was relatively cheap. It’s a preservative. It makes plain foods tasty. When added to commercially produced food, it’s almost universally appealing, unlike other flavors which risk alienating anyone who finds them unfamiliar.

    Thought #3: There was the late-1800’s/early 1900’s notion that spices were unhealthy and “ethnic” whereas that “pure,” “American” food was plain. Well, sugar’s not a spice. And if you’re eating food that is otherwise almost entirely unseasoned, sugar helps. I especially notice this since I like whole-wheat bread, and the American notion of whole-wheat bread is that it is *very sweet.* Did the connection between whole grains and sweeteners get made in the early 1900’s? I suspect so.

    Though #4: I seem to be particularly prone to blood-sugar fluctuation considering I don’t have a medical condition. And I’ve noticed if I eat a sweet breakfast, I *need* sugar every few hours for the rest of the day or I have a terrible blood-sugar crash. I have wondered if those who don’t notice this nevertheless experience it to a moderate degree. So our tradition of starting the morning with dessert (sweet cereal, cakes disguised as muffins, etc) means the entire nation has to top up their blood sugar every few hours, or get hangry — and thus have developed an exaggerated taste for sweetness.

  14. George Gale

    Just today I saw a soda pop display in a small supermarket here in way Upstate NY: “Now with cane sugar.” Word evidently has gotten around about how many prefer sugar-sweetened Mexican pop compared to American HFCS-sweetened pop. Interesting marketing shift.

  15. robyneckhardt

    Wouldn’t one need to distinguish between the diets of those who consume so much processed food versus those who don’t? I’m not talking about a more recent wariness about processed foods, or current ‘foodies’ and their disdain for processed foods. I grew up in Michigan in the 60s/70s, and my mom was not a health food nut or particularly ‘aware’ as a consumer. But we ate eggs and bacon for breakfast, not sweet oatmeal or cereals, and pork chops (or other protein) with frozen veggies and a starch for dinner. We never drank sweet drinks with meals, it was milk or water. The only sweetness in our daily diets that I can recall (other than the canned pineapple which she sometimes served with cottage cheese and iceberg lettuce as a salad) happened on the weekends, when she would bake a cake, pie or other dessert. And after Halloween, when I was allowed to keep and eat all my candy.

    At the same time I am with Ken on the influence of the industry. I think of Turkey, where sugar beets were introduced as a cash crop in the (I think) late 19th/early 20th century, and where prior to that cane sugar was not widely used but natural sweeteners (honey and fruit molasses) were. I do wonder if the pervasive sweetness of food there — beyond sugar syrup-soaked sweets; the sweetness of drinks and even savoury dishes — has something to do with that.

  16. Gloria Rodriguez

    Going off Cooking in Mexico’s comment. “The more acclimated the palate becomes to sweetness, and wants more for food to continue tasting highly sweet.”…

    I wonder if part of the culprit of the American preference (or the “pervasiveness” of the sweet flavor in the food consumed in the US -whether you want to consider that “American cuisine” or not-), is the incredible sweetness of milk here and the higher rates of consumption of this food among the young. Having lived in Spain most of my adult life, and having the very ocasional glass of milk, I am always amazed at the sweetness of the milk that is consumed here. To me the milk from the supermarket in the US tastes like dessert, like a milshake.

    If this is the flavour that is forced upon kids for the first 10 years of their life (if not longer), I would not be amazed to find that their expectations of a “default sweet flavour” and their craving for it are the norm.

    Now, I’d like to think (and this is probably the case), that no sugar is “added” to regular milk here, but I wonder if the production process favors and promotes this sweeter taste in any way. At the end of the day, lactose is a sugar that is naturally found in milk, but how much of it is present in the milk you produce does not seem to be up for question in the industry (unless, of course, you are claiming “low or no lactose”.)

  17. ganna

    Grew up in a family who had a candy bowl on our living room table. Want it, just grab one. Ended up as as a vinegar fan and Vegeta addict. Although I went through a year of After Eights when I first discovered the delight.
    The candy bowl remained for my daughters. One of them is a lasagna queen, another will eat anything with tofu, and the third one, having flipped burgers at a local Mac, says her favorite food is steamed broccoli. They were just totally mystified whenever any visiting friends hit the candy bowl and gobbled up everything including the Christmas candies some two years old.

  18. Karin Anderson

    When I (originally from Germany) first traveled to the US, staying in B&Bs along the East Coast, I was amazed to be served muffins for breakfast, wondering how anybody could eat cake as the first meal in the day. Also, adult people drank sweet sodas with their dinner, and my American boyfriend had surgary cereals for breakfast.
    In strange contrast to Americans unconcerned consumption of sugary foods, dairy products in the supermarket are mostly low, or no-fat. But a look at the ingredient list shows that these seemingly so healthful foods often have more calories – thanks to added sugar to make them at all palatable – than the full fat versions.
    Even though I love desserts and cakes, I couldn’t stomach all that sugar, introduced homemade (unsweetened) muesli with fresh fruit as daily breakfast, and started baking my own (mostly unsweetened) bread.

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