Joanne Chen is the author of the newly released The Taste of Sweet: Our Complicated Love Affair with Our Favorite Treats. In the book, her first, she explores the science and culture behind why some of us have insatiable sweet tooths while others do not. The book also pays particularly interest to Americans' love-hate-guilt relationship to sweets and desserts.
There’s no doubt you're an avid lover of sweets. How did your sweet tooth become the inspiration for the book?
I grew up in a family that loved food, all sorts of food including sweets. We always had desserts and afterschool snacks, and I never thought sweets were a bad food or something limited to special occasions. So, when I became an adult, I was appalled that people didn’t feel the same way. I couldn’t believe people would pass up a just-baked pie! Or feel guilty about eating a cookie. So this book was an excuse to explore how our relationships with sweets (and food in general) came to be.
You write about the many ways people experience taste. What’s the difference between a non-taster, taster, and super-taster? How can someone find out what category they fall into?
Super-tasters have a higher density of taste buds than tasters and non-tasters. Our taste preferences are mainly determined by culture and experience, but our density of taste buds influence how intense certain foods might taste. So super-tasters are more apt to think certain vegetables, like Brussels sprouts, are very bitter, or certain sweets, like Rocky Road ice cream, are too sweet. As one scientist I interviewed explained, super-tasters live in a neon taste world, while non-tasters live in a pastel taste world. You can get an idea by taking a quiz on my website, The Taste of Sweet. You can also get strips of PTC paper from science hobby or teaching shops. These test strips will taste bitter to super-tasters and tasters. Non-tasters will taste nothing at all.
Are some sweets perceived as more low-brow than others? Why is a box of Godiva chocolates more coveted than a box of Whitman's? Isn't it all chocolate?
Yes, I believe some sweets ARE perceived as more low brow than others. It all depends on context. Godiva chocolates are considered more high end than Whitman’s because the price points are higher, justified, in part perhaps, by the purity/quality of the chocolate and fillings it’s made with. However, one scientist I interviewed brought up a good point. He wonders why certain wines are deemed better than others—what is “better”? It’s only deemed better because someone influential in a particular circle says so. Of course, in some social circles, Godiva chocolates are low brow, and something else—like Vosges or Michel Cluizel—is consider high brow.
There’s a lot of fear about high fructose corn syrup. Should folks be wary?
The jury’s still out on that issue. One UCSF doctor I interviewed, Robert Lustig, believes that we should be. HFCS contains slightly higher levels of fructose than plain sugar. Fructose is processed differently and he believes excess intake (which happens when we drink several cans of soda a day) could compromise liver function and wreak havoc on our insulin system. A study out of the University of Florida last December also voiced concern about fructose. But other scientists disagree, including those with the Centers for Science in the Public interests. I believe everything in moderation is the safe way to go.
Let's play a little word association. I will name a sweetener, and you'll tell me the first thing that comes to mind:
Saccharin? Old ladies
Maple Syrup? Sticky
After writing The Taste of Sweet, how has your relationship with sweets changed?
I eat sweets more frequently and freely, but I eat less of them at each sitting. Researching the book as really helped me appreciate the tastes and flavors of every bite and listen to my satiety signals. If the taste has dulled, that means it’s time to put it away and eat it later. Also, I’ve learned to take a moment and analyze my cravings—is it something crunchy that I want? Or warm? Or creamy? Then I zero in on that, rather than wasting time (and calories) on a fat-free muffin, only to make myself a brownie sundae 15 minutes later.
Finally, how do you stay so svelte?
I’ve found that when I stopped denying myself the foods that I liked, I stopped obsessing over them and I gained better control over my eating habits (and even lost a few pounds in the process of writing the book). Also, I should add, I was never a fan of heavy fatty foods. So, I’m the kind of person that orders a salad for an entrée with dressing on the side —and then gets the chocolate cake and ice cream for dessert.