Spaghetti sauce. Salad dressing. Hamburger buns.
Plenty of foods that appear to constitute reasonable meals and snacks — granola bars, muffins, whole-grain cereal — are actually so sugary that it’d be more truthful to call them what they are, which is dessert.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m the mom (or should I say that mom?) who makes kids brush after every meal and snack, refuses to buy juice, much less soda, and rations the consumption of the Halloween and Easter and goody-bag loot.
But I’m also the mom who bakes each and every birthday cake from scratch, and beats up a bowl of real buttercream with which to ice it — rather liberally. Yes, I’m the mom who says “have an apple or a carrot” when my kids are hungry, but, on vacation in Rome, we all ate gelato every day.
Yes, I’m that irritating American who, after living in Europe for several years, is done with voluntarily restrictive diets, the kind that torment unsuspecting dinner party hosts and cause restaurant servers nightmares.
Oh, I know that people claim to feel better without gluten, and I believe them, but my dad nearly died of celiac-induced enteropathy when I was 6, so please forgive me if I can’t quite understand how marginal improvements in your sleeping patterns are worth giving up pasta.
And, no, I definitely don’t want my kids eating sweets every day, but neither do I want them to skip out on the special treats on special occasions.
We have a sugar problem. We eat so much of it that it’s turning us into addicts, sickening us, and killing us — and our kids. Many of us don’t know how much of it we are eating, or how to stop. But that’s not all.
Our sugar problem is also that we don’t know when to toss aside our rules for a day and just eat the cake.
I wondered, recently, what kinds of desserts might be allowed on the Paleo diet that’s all the rage. A quick Web search landed me on a recipe for “brownies” involving walnuts, dates, vanilla extract and unsweetened cocoa powder, blended and rolled into balls. Nothing wrong with that as a delivery system for a protein and fiber-rich snack if you’re headed out on a journey into the wilderness, I suppose, but as dessert?
Perhaps because every Paleo recipe for everything dessert-like requires you to “take your ingredients (none of which are even remotely cookie-like), and grind them in the food processor until they resemble cat vomit,” this bride chose to see her wedding as “biggest opportunity I had for demonstrating to my closest family and friends just how fantastic Paleo food is and can make them feel!” and didn’t serve cake at all.
I will tell you how this would make me feel: sad that there was no cake, but probably not as sad as the little girl whose parents gave her a birthday candle stuck in a cucumber. They didn’t even bother to whip up some sad simulacrum of dessert, but I guess they are to be admired for their lack of guile.
Here’s the thing about sugar: if you eat it every day and in large quantities, it stops being special. But if you forswear it altogether, even for special occasions?
That’s no fun.
And it’s not necessary, either.
I asked Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist and the author of “Fat Chance,” if he truly believed — as a Guardian headline once suggested — that sugar was “poison.”
It isn’t, he said. But because sugar and alcohol are metabolized in much the same way, he said, “the diseases of excess sugar are the diseases of excess alcohol (type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease). And now children get the diseases of alcohol without consuming alcohol, because sugar doubles for alcohol. Just like alcohol, a little is okay. A lot is not. Sugar, like alcohol, should be infrequent, and celebratory. Not in excess, and all the time.”
Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, agreed:
“Sugar can’t be a poison. We need it as fuel for our brains. But excessive sugar causes problems, particularly when consumed in liquid form. So it’s best to enjoy in small amounts.”
You can eat your cake. Just not when it’s masquerading as a muffin, a coffee drink, a granola bar. Your kids can eat their cake. Just not when it’s shape-shifting into cereal, juice boxes and snacks disguised as fruit.
I wish we could at least agree on these things: cake should be cake, and eaten as such, which is to say, occasionally. Cucumbers should be cucumbers — eaten in salad, not as cake. And Paleo brownies should be used as a natural version of Ex-Lax.
The major religions have traditions of feasting and fasting, of ordinary days and festival days, the festal and the ferial. And anyone who has participated in a fast can tell you that the feast is better because of it.
Generally speaking, even a truly abundant Thanksgiving will do no one harm who eats sensibly most other days, and a birthday cupcake won’t hurt a child who, day in and day out, eats his fruits and veggies and doesn’t snack on Oreos.
And who will enjoy the treat more: the one whose taste buds are inured to richness and sweetness, or the one who has fasted for the sake of the feast?
Religious people know this (or should) in a way that those who scorn religion cannot: It’s not the self-denial we love in itself, but the way it opens us up to greater pleasure, joy and celebration.
Let them eat cake.