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.
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.
- Why is American Cuisine So Pervasively Sweet?
- “A Good Cook:” On My Mother’s Hundreth Birthday