How sweet it is

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 2 Apr 2024


The history of our world is the record of man in quest for food.
Man does not live by bread alone; he needs something sweet for energy and satisfaction.
Biologically wired to crave sugar, humans have an innate preference for sweet taste. Sensitivity for sweetness is influenced by several factors, one of which is genetic.
That profound joy of sweets is a comfort and a necessity, a potent elixir that makes life perfect and complete.
Could it be that we inherited this desire from our mother Eve?
As hunter-gatherers, humans needed a lot of stored energy, so our bodies have adapted to seeking and storing sugar.
Ghrelin, known as the hunger-hormone, stimulates the appetite. Research shows that an increase in ghrelin levels contributes to our sugar cravings. Low serotonin levels can also trigger our cravings for sugar. When feeling down or stressed, the sight of a sugary bite is especially appealing.
Babies are born with a desire for sugar, because biologically sugar means energy. Energy for what? Energy to grow.
That sweet tooth is hard-wired from day one and for good reason. The craving for sweet ensures that babies immediately accept nutritious dense foods like mother’s milk, fruit and sugared drinks. The reason is simple. Sugar actually makes infants, (and adults), feel better.
It is a natural pain reliever. A drop of sugary solution on the tongue is used in neonatal procedures, such as circumcision, to lessen pain.
When children are asked if they like sweets, universally the answer is a resounding yes. It is biology.
Kids prefer more intense sweetness than adults and it does not decrease until late adolescence.
Driven by this desire for sweetness, man has pursued and developed means of acquiring it. Confectionery was invented by none others than the ancient Egyptians.
Pioneers in architecture, medicine and mathematics, Egyptians get credit for inventing the calendar, measuring distances and time; improvements in irrigation; medical surgery — and candy. They used honey to make candy combining it with nuts, figs, dates and spices. Ingenious. It was used as part of early religious services, reserved as special foods for gods and royalty.
Where did they find honey?
Exactly how long honey has been in existence is hard to say. Fossils of honey bees date back to 150 million years, but when did man venture into a bee nest? The earliest record of keeping bees in hives was found at the Sun Temple erected 2400 BC near Cairo. No wonder bees were favoured by the Pharaohs, used as a symbol of royalty.
Offered to the gods by Egyptians, in the form of honey cakes, the custom was adopted later by the Greeks and Romans.
This gift from the gods and to the gods was not plentiful. That sweet taste was sought elsewhere.
It was found among the Papuans in Western New Guinea. This ancient civilisation was secretly chewing on raw sugarcane for 8,000 years. It was introduced to Polynesia via Austronesian sailors, before reaching India.
Emperor Darius of Persia invaded India in 510 BC, where he found “a reed that brings forth honey without the help of bees”.
A small amount of sugarcane was brought back from Alexander’s conquest in India in 326 BC and traded to physicians.
Around 350 AD the Indians discovered how to crystallise sugar. Travelling Buddhist monks brought their methods to China.
By 650 AD crystallised sugarcane became a culinary staple across India, China and the Middle East. When Arabs invaded Persia in 642 AD they discovered sugarcane and learned how sugar was made. They adopted the techniques, expanded production to other lands they conquered, Spain and North Africa.   
Sugar was only discovered in Western Europe as a result of the Crusades in the 11th century AD. Imported sugar from the Arab world for medicinal purposes, it was also used as a delicacy when combined with almonds, marzipan.
One of the world’s oldest commodities, sugar is a natural ingredient that has always been in our diet. Hard to imagine what people ate before they discovered sugar.
From medicine to irresistibly, delightful delicacies was a short journey. Arab pastry was created.
The sweet, symphonic parade of sweet pastries of baklava, kunafa, and others, favourites during the month of Ramadan, is proof enough that our profound joy of sweets is a comfort and a necessity.
Arab dessert is a potent elixir that makes a meal complete and makes life sweet. We cherish that magical formula of heavenly toothsome and wallow in la dolce vita it offers.
 “Sweet” is used in almost all languages to describe many aspects of life, from which we derive pleasure.
Desserts make the meal, meal makes the man and man is what he eats, better to add something sweet.
Our cravings are not unnatural. When times are imperfect it often seems that the only joy left for human existence is a bite of that intoxicating morsel, oozing with a sweet, magical nectar.
We should, however, add concern to excess.
We have devoured our exquisitely dainty, delectable, dulcet delicacy, nibbled and gnawed on every rich, luscious, sugary, succulent morsel of Ramadan bounty; it is time to consider caution, before this penchant leads to disease and worse.
We need to watch what we eat.
Another avalanche of toothful, bonne bouche tidbits await us and we succumb.  
Too much is just too much
Moderation is the golden rule of life in all things, especially all things sweet.

“Animals feed themselves, men eat/ But only wise men know the art of eating.”
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin


* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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