Rachel Laudan

What Would An Answer to the Question “Why Is American Food So Pervasively Sweet?” Look Like?


1980s Advertising Poster, Library of Congress, modified victorrocha.

1980s Advertising Poster, Library of Congress, modified victorrocha.

So many commented on my last post on “Why is American Cuisine so Pervasively Sweet?” whether on my site, on Facebook, or on Twitter that I can’t possibly reply individually.  So here’s a composite response.  It’s not in any way definitive, just thoughts about what an answer might look like, informed by your replies.

As a preliminary, it’s worth remembering that sugar is pretty amazing stuff, even compared to other sweeteners such as honeys, palm sugar or maple syrup, malt sugar, milk sugars, treacle or molasses.

Small amounts of sugar help balance flavors. Heating sugar produces a whole series of different textures and flavors. Combine it with some combination of flour, fat, and liquid, and it makes crusts an appetizing brown, keeps baked goods tender, ice cream soft, and cookies crisp. It’s not surprising it’s appealing to diners, cooks and processors alike.

A good answer to the pervasive sweetness of American food would include:

Comparison with similar societies

The answer would have to establish that American food is pervasively sweet, more pervasively sweet than other foods that have roughly similar histories.  So ideally it might be compared with the UK, Canada and Australia, with European countries, and perhaps a couple from industrialized countries in other parts of the world.

Recognition that not everyone in the society will eat pervasively sweet food

The answer does not have to establish that every American eats pervasively sweet food. As several respondents said, “My family is American and we do not eat pervasively sweet food.” I think it’s quite possible for Americans to avoid eating pervasively sweet food if they shop and cook in certain ways. Or put another way, the cuisine of a group is never eaten by every member of that group.

Almost certainly post 1880

The answer is likely to be located in the period post 1880 when sugar/treacle/molasses becomes inexpensive enough to make a cuisine pervasively sweet.  I don’t think this ever happened with any of the other sweeteners.  So even if American food turned out to be particularly pervasively sweet, I think most industrialized cuisines are likely to be sweeter than non-industrialized cuisines.  This, I think, is the answer to the several respondents who said “But didn’t earlier cuisines venerate sweetness, use sugar in savory dishes, etc.” Yes, they did, but this was usually reserved for the rich and the quantities were tiny compared to contemporary consumption.

Involving several causes, agents, and an extended period of time

The answer is likely to involve several causes, not just one.

It’s not the result of just one industry or agency or individual.

And it has taken time. Consider some of the things that make American cuisine sweet.

Mothers, encouraged by nutritionists and the state, became accustomed to the idea that a PB&J (peanut butter and jelly–that is, jam) sandwich was a good, quick lunch for children.

Processors put sugar in canned goods. Think Boston baked beans, probably the way a significant portion of beans are eaten in the US.

Bakers find sticky buns sell. Compare these to the very lightly sweet enriched breads, often quite small, and often topped or filled with jam or icing.  Buns in England, kolaches in Czechoslovakia, pan dulce in Mexico.

Breeders create sweetness in vegetables and fruit, even without added sugar.  Sweet corn is now so sweet that the corn flavor is barely distinguishable. Vidalia and Maui onions are praised for their sweetness. Ditto for tomatoes, especially cherry tomatoes. Peaches, mangoes, and apples, for example, are all sold ripe or bred to be sweet. It’s essentially impossible to get the small, sour peaches that are so excellent canned in Mexico, or the unripe mangoes to be eaten with salt or soy or made into chutney, or tart apples that are used for pie in England.

!941 C Ration with fudge bar on left. US Army.

!941 C Ration with fudge bar on left. US Army.

Some possible factors leading to pervasive sweetness (not all peculiar to America)

  • Ease of use of sugar. Once a way of granulating sugar is invented in the mid nineteenth century, sugar pours. Much easier to use than the earlier hard cone sugar.
  • Chocolate.  One of America’s favorite flavors/treats usually involving sugar, ditto cinnamon.
  • Refrigeration. Sweetness is much less evident when the drink or food (ice cream) is very cold.
  • Association between children and sugar. Candy as a treat, candy for Easter and Christmas, often a child’s first purchase as it is small and inexpensive and widely available.
  • Association between women and sugar.  Home sweet home, romance, chocolates, and soda fountains as an early place for women to eat alone and in public.
  • Association between men and candy. No it’s not just for children and women, it’s manly too. Fighting men in World War II swigged Coke and had chocolate bars supplied by Hershey’s in their emergency rations.  So sweetness is good for everyone.
  • Shifting scientific opinion. From an inexpensive source of calories and hence good to empty calories and hence bad, contradictory advice on sugar, leading perhaps to an attitude of “what the heck?”
  • Artificial sweeteners.  The gluten-free equivalent for the 1970s and 80s, leading perhaps to “indulgent restraint.” (Carolyn de la Peña’s term, see below).
  • The US Government.  From the annexation of Hawaii which was all bound up with sugar interests, to the decision in World War I that ice cream was a necessary food and thus not to be rationed, to subsidies to sugar producers and tariffs on foreign sugar that extend to the present. See also shifting scientific opinion.
  • War and the military, see men and the US Government.
  • Sugar growers.  See also the US Government.
  • The retail sector.
  • The food service sector.
  • And then there are the other factors many of you pointed to: industry, HFCS, advertising, dislike of bitterness, sweetness as “natural.”

All in all, a complex and interlocking set of forces. No single villain, I think.  And lots of people with good intentions.

A couple of excellent books.

Wendy A. Woloson.  Refined Tastes: Sugar, Confectionery, and Consumers in Nineteenth-Century America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

Carolyn de la Peña, Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

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4 thoughts on “What Would An Answer to the Question “Why Is American Food So Pervasively Sweet?” Look Like?

  1. Naomi Hossain

    Fascinating. American food really does seem to be on average very much sweeter than other cuisines. Having moved to the US a year ago I noticed immediately not only the size of the cakes and baked goods available (HUGE portions of sugary things!) but how routinely they appear to be eaten – daily seems to be quite common. But even what I would think of as savoury foods, like the Thanksgiving dishes like pumpkin pie, are inedibly sugary for my taste. Even brunch will come with a side of fruit on the same plate as your eggs or whatever. You would not get that addition of sweetness quite so regularly in European restaurants, nor in South Asian dishes that I can think of. The only other place I can think of where there is such a sweet tooth is Indonesia – Javanese food in particular is highly sugared, usually with palm sugar, but balanced (as it S E Asian cooking in general) with chili-heat and sour from lime etc. Perhaps it is just that in some American cuisines the sweetness is less often balanced against the other flavours that it seems so much sweeter.

  2. waltzingaustralia

    Several things come to mind when speaking of sugar. Humans are hard-wired to prefer sweets, but we also have the tendency to do what we want even when we know it’s questionable — think of Woody Allen’s “The heart wants what the heart wants.” So does the palate.

    In Elizabethan England, everyone had already figured out that sugar rotted your teeth — but only rich people could afford sugar, so if your teeth were rotting, you must be rich. So people in the middle class started coloring their teeth black, so that they’d look like they could afford sugar (and rich people kept eating sugar and rotting their teeth).

    In the 1937 silent film “The Grand Illusion,” two European aristocrats talk about the rising middle class, and one observes, “They want to eat white bread and sugar like we do, so that they too can get cancer and gout.”

    So everyone has always known that over-indulgence came at a price. But everyone still wanted sugar. With the settling of the Caribbean, the availability of sugar grew dramatically. With the introduction into Europe of coffee, tea, and chocolate, demand exploded. Anyone who could afford it wanted it. Because the Caribbean began to focus entirely on growing sugar (we’re talking 1700s here), they had to get all their food from the British colonies on the mainland — often paying for it with sugar or molasses. So tons flowed into New England. But people could get rich producing sugar, which is why Jean Etienne de Bourre began growing sugar in Louisiana in the late 1700s (before France sold it) — and then went on to create the process for making granulated sugar. So granulated sugar was invented in what would become the U.S.

    Now, we actually raise kids to be sugar addicts. I cringe when I see babies by the hundreds with apple juice in their bottles. Parents are setting their kids up for sugar cravings, as juice, with no skin or pulp, is pretty much just sugar water — though apple juice has the added issue of acid, which is worse for your teeth than sugar. Infants should drink milk or water, but not fruit juice.

    Finally, we live in a fairly chaotic, uncertain world, and sugar is cheap comfort. As George Orwell noted in The Road to Wigan Pier, “A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. …when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty.’

  3. Linda Makris

    Interesting comment about granulated sugar in Louisiana. In food historian Andrew Dalby’s wonderful book “Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices” he mentions in section on sugar, that around the time of Christ, Greek writer Dioscorides devoted a short paragraph to sugar, and goes on to describe a new highly useful form of sugar “called Sakkharon, a sort of crystallized honey, in India and Arabia. Found in reeds, it is not unlike salt in its texture and can be crunched between the teeth like salt …” And so Dalby concludes that granulated sugar was probably discovered in India and brought to the Mediterranean by Arab traders. It was very expensive and mainly used in medicine.

    There is also evidence that the Byzantine Roman-Greeks were the first [in the Mediterranean] ,to exchange gifts of sweets between aristocratic families on special occasions. Otherwise interesting comments, concluding that we owe our love of sugar to the wealthy. Here in Greece, sweets are often still made with honey, are eaten alone, not usually at the end of a meal. Honey is still considered more healthy than sugar. Greeks also dislike anything sweet with savory foods. Only in past decade have they begun eating sweet and sour dishes, there are virtually none in Greek recipe books. Then they are meat dishes cooked with dried fruits [prunes, figs, raisins] served with rice. These are carry overs from contacts with Persia and the Ottomans.

  4. ganna

    Americans are not the only people with too much sugar in their food. Try some Swedish cuisine. After a month in Sweden I almost got used to rye bread tasting like cake but am still unable to figure out how on earth they manage to make sweet marinated herring.

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