Is This Normal? “I Neither Crave nor Like Sweet Things”
In this series, we dig into our strange phobias, fixations, and neuroses, and ask ourselves — Is This Normal?
Growing up, I never saw the point of going to get ice cream with friends. At most of my birthday parties, my guests would enthusiastically partake in the cake-plastering and cake-eating, while I had to quietly slink away every time someone looked for me with a piece in their hand. While I do eat dessert (especially spicy, fruity ones) occasionally, eating sweet things has never held the fascination for me that I’ve seen it hold for others. From craving pastries and getting treats on grocery shopping trips, to declaring a wistful abstention from sugar — I’ve never gone through this cycle. While some of my friends have, in the past, loudly proclaimed they’d disown me if I uttered my dislike of chocolate to anyone (partly because it might seem like bragging), here I am finally admitting I don’t see the appeal of sugary treats. Is this normal?
Science says yes. An international team of sensory scientists published a 2015 study in the journal Twin Research and Human Genetics that sought to find a genetic clue to some people’s higher versus lower proclivities toward sugar. They evaluated how identical and fraternal twins experience sweet tastes and compared their results to how non-identical twins experienced them. This technique helps identify genetic causes; identical twins have an almost identical genetic makeup, and fraternal twins are half genetically similar, NPR reported, which helps researchers pinpoint if a physiological response is the product of genes or not. The study participants were given two sets of natural sugars and artificial sweeteners each and then asked to determine the intensity of sweetness they felt while consuming the sugars. The scientists found that genes in study participants accounted for 30% of the difference in how they tasted sugar; they did not go as far as to attempt to determine which genes might be responsible.
Genes, however, do not put attitudes toward sugar in black and white, Danielle Reed, one of the study’s authors, told NPR. The basis in genes only means people have a higher or lower liking for sweet things as compared to the other tastes — all of which get sorted out in the brain — mainly as a result of evolution, according to Reed.
“If [your ancestors] were from a salt-abundant geography, like near the ocean, then maybe they got plenty of salt, so they didn’t need to be sensitive to it,” she says, meaning they could have a higher tolerance to it and would need to consume more to experience the same effect. “But if they were from a place with a lot of poisonous plants, maybe they needed to be more sensitive to bitter.” In my case, then, the Desai family for generations seems to have been highly sensitive to sweet things — mainly because I can barely eat more than one bite of an elaborate dessert before feeling a need to hurl.
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This, Reed tells NPR, might be a good thing. With the detrimental effects of sugar, especially those of processed sugar, slowly coming to light, being sensitive to sweet-tasting things, and therefore consuming less of them can only signal a healthier future. “It now pays to get a lot of pleasure out of a little bit of sugar,” Reed adds.
And while this may be genetically normal, it definitely isn’t so in society, as Bustle writer Beca Grimm points out. Those who prefer savory over sweet food often get asked the same question: “Are you on a diet?” and the refusal often sparks a similar response: “Eat. Don’t be too obsessed with getting fat.”
But does one preferring savory over sweet mean anything? We’ve established it’s normal — but is it normal only in a deeply scientific way, or is it normal behaviorally, too? Turns out, maybe not. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined the effect of eating sweets on individual behavior, asking 55 college students to rate their preference for five tastes — sweet, bitter, sour, salty and spicy — and then to answer questions about their agreeableness, i.e. tendency to be friendly, compassionate and cooperative. Researchers found those with a preference for sweet-tasting things were likely to have an agreeable — or ‘sweet’ — disposition. The researchers, in another study, divided up 55 college students, gave them either sweet milk chocolate, a bland cracker, or no food, and then asked them to volunteer and help out a professor. They found the students who were given the sweet before the task ended up being ‘sweeter’ to the professor and more eager to take on work (bolstered by the sugar, perhaps?), as compared to those not given a sweet snack, or any food.
Now, nobody in the entire history of the universe has ever been happy with just a cracker, or no food. In my opinion, the comparison to a sugary treat doesn’t hold, because these alternatives are not as enticing. A vada pav, on the other hand, I’m sure would have done the trick. To my fellow sweet-toothless (but still sweetheart) folks — can we make cutting pizzas on birthdays a thing?