I’m a pusher. A sugar peddler. I’m the lady on the street corner with a bag of taffy in her hand who lures you over with: “The first one’s free. Come back if you like it.”
Go ahead, cast your aspersions. I’ll just be here casting sugar molds and licking the spoon while you rail away at my evil ways. I can take it. Pastry chefs get guff from all sides, especially within the culinary ranks. If you’ve ever watched an episode of “Top Chef” (not the “Desserts” edition, obviously), there’s a guarantee that some perfectly competent chef will mutter, “Not dessert — I don’t do pastry,” in a tone so dismissive you’d think they’d been asked to use a toothpick to clean the bottom of a pair of clogs after a hike through a field of cow patties.
In the health community, the criticism is harder to ignore, with rising rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancers being linked to Americans’ increased consumption of sugar. In 1999, the per capita consumption in America was 158 pounds. Let’s see that again: 158 pounds of sugar per American! That’s about 50 tablespoons or a cup of sugar a day. That’s insane!
What’s even more insane is that the vast majority of the sugar is coming from what’s called “wholesale products” or what I like to call “sneaky snacks”; prepackaged foods like peanut butter, yogurt, salad dressing, soup, low-fat meals, crackers, etc. These are things that have no business containing extra sugar. And don’t get me started on soda. Thirty-three percent of the sugar going straight to Americans’ waistlines is coming from a can of pop.
For a woman who just released a book called “Sugar Baby,” you’d think I’d be applauding this overwhelming saturation of sweetness in every meal. And to you I’d say, “Not so fast, buster.” I think it’s appalling, this covert sugar distribution. If I’m going to be eating sucrose, I’ll do it on my own terms: openly and with relish, not in high doses hidden in my supper. I’m going to make my favorite taffy recipe that contains two cups of sugar and a cup of corn syrup and makes over 150 pieces of candy. When I eat a single piece of taffy, I will know exactly what it is I’m eating: Sugar!
I’m under no illusion that I’m nourishing myself. However when I am eating healthfully, when I have every intention of filling up on nutrients with a salad, chances are if I’m eating a name brand product, the dressing’s second main ingredient is high fructose corn syrup. I could be forgiven for assuming I’m safely within my 1,500-calorie restrictive diet when I eat a packaged diet Glazed Chicken entrée from a brand name manufacturer — but its second main ingredient after chicken is high fructose corn syrup. I look at ingredient lists of allegedly “healthy” packaged foods and this is how I translate them: “dehydrated chicken, a bag of Skittles, a month’s worth of salt that would be better off sprinkled on some caramel …”
I’d rather poach a breast of chicken myself and even steam some veggies for good measure. That leaves me with a nice slice of homemade pie for dessert, and I bet you I’ll be well within the calorie confines of even the most restrictive diet. And I’ll guarantee that it’ll taste a hell of a lot better than anything I had to tear from two layers of cardboard and a toxic coating of cellophane. Nutrition-wise, I’ll have eaten far less sugar than had I eaten that prepackaged “diet” chicken … and it didn’t even include dessert!
I’ve done a very unscientific survey on my sugar consumption and this is what I’ve found: Aside from the sugars I consume from fruits and veggies, I eat about 5 to 10 tablespoons of sugar in a normal* week. Why so low? Because I make every meal from scratch and I don’t add sugar. I buy plain yogurt. I drink coffee black. I make my own soups and dressings. And then I bake and eat desserts knowing damn well what’s in them. Sugar is a treat, a celebration. It’s not the enemy.
But it is an unwitting pawn in the food manufacturing game. Keep sugar where it’s meant to be, in birthday cakes and campfire S’mores, in those treats that we eat on occasion to celebrate our good fortune at being alive.
*Normal is a week during which I’m not knee deep in recipe testing for a cookbook. On those occasions, the sugar consumption is off the charts and untrackable. But I’m a professional. Don’t try this at home.
This week’s Soapbox contributor, Gesine Bullock-Prado, founder of the Gesine Confectionary product line and author of “My Life from Scratch” (Broadway Books) and “Sugar Baby” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) has been featured in People magazine, on the Food Network, Zester Daily and in many other national publications. She lives in Vermont.
Top photo: Gesine Bullock-Prado. Credit: Tina Ripp