I thought olive oil was controversial, but sugar! Yeesh. Bandwagons abound, and you can jump on any one you want with just one minute of Googling your preferred theory. Of course, there's Big Sugar and their infamous corn syrup, which is probably responsible for the downfall of Western Civilization, a posit exhaustively detailed in the documentary Fed Up (which is totally fascinating and depressing, check it out). You've also got the anti-sugar set, who demonize everything from white sugar to fruit, with fructose guarding the gates of hell. Dear readers, we will not be jumping on any bandwagons, but rather, examining the science and making educated decisions for ourselves based on evidence (and yes, gut feelings). Then we will triumphantly make a delicious cake to celebrate. You all know how much I hate when macronutrients are bullied, right?
I found myself in many a comment section while researching this post, for example, the one attached to this "article" in The Washington Post, because even research presented by journalists about sugar is difficult to take at face value. What I learned that was provable and of value from this random anonymous sampling of the population is: fit people also get diabetes, some people react badly even to fruit, and foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup are pretty much guaranteed to contain other shitty, junk ingredients as well. Lots of things are subjective, genetic, environmental - tune in to what your body tells you after you eat something. Are you gassy or bloated after eating certain fruits, but okay after eating other ones? Do you feel panicked or anxious after eating store-bought cookies? Does your energy crash after having a sweet breakfast? What times of day do you crave sugar, and does eating it then make you feel better or worse?
I'm very sensitive about what I put into my body - if I feel even a little off, I usually go back what I ate first to figure out why I'm feeling that way (this is a great way to avoid confronting deeper emotional issues). At the same time, I LOVE TO EAT. I always, always have. I like to eat something every time I change locations throughout the day. I like to eat something every time I sit down and every time I stand up. Finding the balance between flavor and function is essential for me to walk that fine line between eating enough to be emotionally happy while keeping my body in physical homeostasis.
I'm re-balancing my intake of carbs right now as I'm not feeling as spunky and light as I used to, and my first step is to be very intentional about when I eat sugar. I do know that white sugar always makes me feel unsatisfied, weary and hungry for still more carbs, and natural sugars don't. I'm curious to see if either bringing down my natural sugar intake overall or completely overhauling my largely sedentary lifestyle in an effort to USE the energy that sugar provides will make me feel better. Or maybe it's the time of day that I eat it that's important! I'll let you know. In the interim, everyone has to pick their battles, and mine is certainly not against dessert with nutritious intentions. Rather, I encourage you to switch to all unrefined sugar (so no soda, no corn syrup, no white sugar, no diluted honey nor Aunt Jemima) and see how that makes you feel. My go-tos are raw honey, maple syrup, yacon syrup, jaggery/panela and dates/date sugar. Some unrefined sugars, like maple syrup, are indeed processed, up to a certain point; sap and juice are reduced from their original form, but not refined after that. White sugar undergoes further refinement via centrifuge to remove molasses, which just happens to be where all of the minerals and nutrients are. Maybe you'll agree after switching to natural sugars that your mood doesn't spike and fall after eating, you're digesting nicely, it tastes better, and you need less. These guys are really rich in flavor!
Humans need three things to function properly: fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. If the body cannot make it by itself, you have to eat it. You have to eat carbs! Carbohydrates fuel our cells, they give us energy. We encounter many kinds of carbohydrates in our daily lives - some are big and complex structures, with lots of sugar molecules linked together every which way, and some are simple, known as monosaccharides and disaccharides, with just one or two sugar units making up their structure. In the end, all carbohydrates are composed of our little friend, the sugar molecule.
The number one ultimate coolest monosaccharide is glucose. Remember the potatoes from our Julia Child extravaganza last post? Tubers are the potato plant's underground storage vessels of glucose (stored as starch, a complex carbohydrate), which the plant gets via its green chlorophyll-y leaves from the sun. Hence, eat potatoes, eat glucose, eat the sun! Yes! That is literally how it works. We humans don't have chlorophyll-y leaves, so we can't glean glucose from the sun. We have to eat carbs! Eating enough carbohydrates prevents our bodies from instead breaking down our protein stores into glucose (and you can be sure I'll tell you all about protein another time - it's too important to be wasted on making glucose when we can so easily get glucose from delicious carby things).
Together, one glucose molecule and once fructose molecule bonded make a sucrose molecule, a disaccharide - the combination that gives us, in varying ratios and chemical bonding, table sugar, honey, maple syrup and fruit. These sugars are simple and small - they are easily digested by the body and provide quick energy. Easy, fast, sounds ideal, right? Wrong. It may seem counterintuitive, but we don't actually want easily digestible sugars and quick energy - we want our sugars packaged with fiber or protein, so the body gains access slowly. This ensures a steady, efficient use of energy and a minimal spike in blood sugar. Having your sugar in a whole form is so important, because the sweetness of fructose serves as a flag to our brains that the thing we are about to eat is nutritionally rich (like fruit). When sugar that has been stripped of all of its nutrients (refined sugar) is just added willy-nilly, you are getting the sweetness flag, but no actual nutrients. Your body is getting all excited and preparing for some sweet, slow energy unpacking, but ends up getting nothing but a sugar rush right into the bloodstream and liver. Additionally, after eating items made with refined sugar (and ostensibly refined every-other-ingredient), you don't end up feeling full, as they are lacking all of the good bulking agents that make up whole foods. Yet, they still taste damn good to your brain, so you reach for more! This kind of over-consumption is a major reason sugar is linked to bad health.
Why are our own brains making us act a fool? Early hominids ate mostly fruits and leaves while the species was still centralized in the tropics, where the vegetation is lush, and the weather hot and humid year-round. After expanding outward to the savanna (mixed woodland and grassland), the hominids used their taste buds to determine which of their new food sources were nutritious, and which were toxic. That fructose flag was very helpful to our great ape ancestors. The chemicals that make up the food we eat stimulate receptor cells within our taste buds, which help us decide what is nutrient-dense and what is toxic, and rev up the rest of the body for metabolization and digestion. Taste, combined with smell and touch, equals flavor! The body uses flavor to identify if a food is familiar, or something completely new. Sweetness is familiar, from our early days foraging fruit in the tropics, as well as from those cookies we got when we were good little boys and girls. Lollipops at the bank, ice cream after games - we're programmed early and often. (As a side note, toxic food is usually perceived as very bitter.) Nowadays, at least where I live, we are not using taste to identify nutritious foods in a deep forest of dubious sources of calories, but rather, to sit on the couch and eat the saltiest, sweetest things we can get our hands on, AFTER we've already eaten dinner.
This is how I see unrefined sugar going down in the body. The brain sees sweet food, like an apple or raw honey, and associates it with nutrients and energy. The taste buds experience the sweetness and think the same thing. The energy enters the body packaged with enzymes, vitamins, fiber and/or protein, depending on the source, and the body slowly breaks open the energy packets and reaps the benefits.
This is how I see refined sugar going down in the body. The brain sees sweet food, like a cookie or a can of soda, and the same thing happens as with natural sugar. The brain thinks this food will contain nutrients and energy, as do the taste buds. The refined sugar hits the body in an unfortified explosion of energy, which peaks quickly and dissipates. The body is left tired and hungry, usually with a craving for more sugar.
There is an interesting theory, first proposed by Nobel Prize-winning ethologist (animal behaviorist) Nikolaas Tinbergen, of supernormal stimuli. Tinbergen ran various experiments, like planting large, decoratively-painted, fake plaster eggs among a bird's real eggs, and fake wooden female butterflies with exaggerated attractive markings among male butterflies looking to mate, to see which one the animal would choose. In all cases, the animal preferred the fake, or the super stimulus, even though it was actually detrimental to themselves and the proliferation of their species as a whole. For an excellent visual explanation of this theory via comic, go here.
When I read about supernormal stimuli, I screamed DUH THIS IS SO REAL and thought hard about Tinder and high-fructose corn syrup. Manufactured food today is without a doubt supernormal stimuli. Food companies have very smart engineers and entire laboratories devoted to pumping their products with the highest amount of salt and sugar possible (while spending the least amount of money possible on the ingredients) to trick your taste buds into forgetting about what we're really eating for: nutrition and quality. Your taste buds don't care about what happens when the food enters the gastrointestinal tract - they've done their job by then and moved onto the next thing. I believe it is possible to become addicted to anything, at least emotionally, and whether or not people are becoming physically addicted to sugar, Tinbergen's work shows that it is possible that we instinctively cannot turn away from this supernomal stimuli. Hyper-appealing foods are another direct link to bad health. By the same psychological token, bear in mind, the concept of "dessert" is a human creation. It is possible we crave sweet things at times when we aren't actually hungry (like after dinner) because we're just used to having dessert.
To hear what your body is telling you, you're going to have to tune out both the people injecting sugar into your food to make money off of your poor health, and the people forbidding you to ever eat sugar again because they want to sell you their newest diet e-book. Be strong out there, friends.
Chestnut Cherry Upside-Down Cake
Handful of jaggery or panela
30 cherries, any color
2 medium-large pastured eggs
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp maple syrup
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp Himalayan pink salt, preferably coarse
120 grams (1 cup) chestnut flour
50 grams (scant 1/2 cup) almond meal
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
Lightly oil an 8-inch round cake pan and sprinkle a thin layer of jaggery across the bottom (you can also use a 9-inch, but you will need more cherries).
Slice the cherries in half, using the pit in the middle to guide the knife. Place halves facing up or down in concentric circles, in whatever pattern and order pleases you.
In a large bowl, whisk eggs to break yolks. Add maple syrup and whisk thoroughly. Add olive oil and whisk 45-60 seconds until slightly thickened. Add vanilla and salt, and whisk once more.
In a medium bowl, combine chestnut flour, almond meal, and baking powder.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, folding with a spatula until just mixed. Pour batter gently into pan, covering cherries.
Bake at 300°F for 65 minutes (but do check in on the cake at 45 minutes in), until the cake bounces back to the touch (and the interior does not seem wet or jiggly) or a tester inserted comes out clean.
Allow cake to cool to room temperature in pan. Cover the top of the pan with a plate wider than the pan, and carefully but confidently flip the cake over. Knock on the top of the pan a few times with your hand and lift the pan straight up.
Serve immediately, or let sit, covered, at room temperature, until the next morning.