Come December and it is time for fun, frolic, making merry and gorging on delicious foods to celebrate the festivities. For most of us, there are weddings and wedding parties to squeeze into our Christmas and New Year get-togethers. I suppose we Indians are foodies, as if it is in our genes to try different cuisines from all over our country. Thus, festivities and family celebrations are probably just another reason for us to treat our taste buds to mouth-watering and scrumptious delicacies that lace the buffets. No meal is complete without a dessert and so almost each meal is concluded with either pudding, cake, or a little this and a little that from the assorted Indian desserts. So, holiday weight? Ooh! Let us not open that door yet!
Science has always been a fascinating field, providing logical and practical answers and solutions to our complicated and many a times, not-so-complicated questions. One such discovery is that our choices of foods are based on our taste preferences. This in turn is articulated in the genes we inherit from our parents! Who would have thought!
Studies conducted by experts from all around the world have divulged one common truth- our preference or level of sweetness is inherent in us and there are specific genes responsible for this . This finding has a set of interesting factors surrounding it, with obvious questions – does it depend on the age, gender or where we live on the face of the earth?
The word ‘sweet’ is commonly used in our conversations and is used to describe anything from a person’s trait to relationships and the taste of foods. Who doesn’t like sweets? It is the most liked or preferred taste universally, but not all of us enjoy it equally, at all times. Sugars not only taste pleasant, but also are a great source of energy. However, variations in the perception and preference of the degree of sweetness are observed between populations and within the same individual on a daily basis. Very broadly, there are two types of populations, first whose preference decreases with increase in concentration of the sweetness, with a breakpoint at the middle- range concentration, followed by a decline in the preference as the sweetness keeps increasing. The second type can tolerate and even enjoy any level of sweetness; for them, there is nothing that is too sweet.
Another factor that comes into play is the race or ethnicity. African-Americans, for instance, prefer higher levels and Pima Indians prefer lower levels of sugars, compared to people from the European ancestry . Our choice of sweet foods decreases with increasing age. Nonetheless, babies of both sexes enjoy a decent degree of sweetness, with males preferring a higher amount than females.
The selection of sweet foodstuffs or sudden cravings can also be a result of the metabolic changes that happen in our body. Sugars are known to be beneficial during pre- and post-menstrual syndromes and even during psychological episodes of anxiety, depression and sadness. Fascinatingly, they alleviate and calm the symptoms. Another example is when the insulin in the blood decreases, there is an increased preference of sugar.
A bitter- sweet relationship
‘Sweet’ is often accompanied by ‘bitter.’ Understanding the ‘sweet’ part of ourselves has also promoted a better perception of the bitter taste. Regular vegetables and groceries we consume have bitter components in them. Like the sweet taste, some are very sensitive towards the bitter taste. Since ages, our predecessors have been devising methods to get rid of, or at least mask, the bitter tastes in our foods. Even today, we have approaches and kitchen techniques to lessen the bitterness in bitter gourd and Brussels sprouts.
Sweetness-imparters are commonly added to medicines to mask their bitter taste so that it is easier to ingest, especially for children. Like the ‘sweet’ genes, sensitivity to bitterness is also genetic. Children who have this gene-derived sensitivity to bitter tastes prefer highly concentrated sweet when compared to children with no such sensitivity.
Our upbringing, health, advice by doctors and gym instructors often compel us to eat the sweets in moderation or none at all. Excessive sweet consumption can cause obesity, but then again, excess of anything has done nobody any good!
We work very hard throughout the year to maintain a healthy body and mind. I think we owe it to ourselves to indulge in the goodies once in a while in December, because let us face it, Christmas and New Year come just once a year! And if you hear your parents tell you to not eat too many sweets, you can always say that you get that twist from them!
Reed D.R., McDaniel A. H. The Human Sweet Tooth. BMC Oral Health. 2006; 6(1): S17 doi: 10.1186/1472-6831-6-S1-S17