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Evolutionary History: Why does sugar taste good?

Answered on September 12, 2014
Created May 22, 2011 at 1:49 AM

One very basic thing I don't seem to understand about Paleo:

Why do things obviously bad for us taste good, while things obviously good taste less good (or at least less addictive - let's not argue semantics)?

I'm looking for an evolutionary explanation. Was sugar once rare? How did finding/eating sugar impact our survival so much that it tastes to us like it does?

2248abf977dd5d09733f5d4e2510fc12

(147)

on May 22, 2011
at 08:06 PM

makes sense. got urls to back that up?

902a7cd8f96bbc917a04e92b1f49dbd7

(787)

on May 22, 2011
at 07:13 PM

Fruits of various kinds grow year round in India. Stress can induce flowering/fruiting (the plant wants to reproduce while it can). But so can consistently favorable conditions, which aren't uncommon in the tropics.

0fd24d837dbad54740f53cc5f72068a0

(285)

on May 22, 2011
at 04:36 PM

Maybe I'm wrong and there are places where fruit grows year round, but I live near the equator and apart from some citrus, the fruit production is very seasonal. Everything I know about fruit production says stress (dry season, cold, etc) is needed for good yield. From what I understand, most trees don't 'grow' and flower and the same time.

Ab19df3ededa28f7bf7daeba8435b205

(1471)

on May 22, 2011
at 01:44 PM

(info: google "diamonds arent really rare", plus watch blood diamond (good movie even it is fictinalized) and other "how things are made" type shows)

Ab19df3ededa28f7bf7daeba8435b205

(1471)

on May 22, 2011
at 01:43 PM

Diamonds actually arent really rare, it is the diamond markets that hold the commodity and advertise it as rare. Plus the human life lost to get them makes them even less appealing.I have one only because that is only way my husband would purchase an engagement ring because it is engrained in mens heads that their woman wants and must have one, then girls are brainwashed to think the bigger the more he loves me(on a side note, i find that the bigger the diamond the quicker the divorce :)

3aea514b680d01bfd7573d74517946a7

(11996)

on May 22, 2011
at 06:54 AM

I concur with Henny. Sweet, meh. I was more of a starch scarfer. And salty-crunchy -- hoo boy.

Fff58a1fd1e29d93fd6a25d3fdebbade

(400)

on May 22, 2011
at 03:35 AM

Maybe I'm weird but I'm not really a big fan of the taste of sugar. It was very easy for me to give it up and I don't miss it at all. Now beer on the other hand...

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on May 22, 2011
at 03:13 AM

Also this all assumes that our love for fructose evolved during hunter-gatherer time. It evolved when we were herbivores and apparently was never lost. Wild berries are plenty sweet. It is the fruits like apples and bananas that weren't.

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on May 22, 2011
at 03:00 AM

In Africa you get a lot of berries for a long time. Does it snow there?

A089b683ee0498f2b21b7edfa300e405

(3895)

on May 22, 2011
at 02:26 AM

Back then, it was more likely honey, berries were seasonal and not as sweet..

2248abf977dd5d09733f5d4e2510fc12

(147)

on May 22, 2011
at 02:19 AM

that post is indeed great!

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8 Answers

best answer

4
100fd85230060e754fc13394eee6d6f1

(18706)

on May 22, 2011
at 02:10 AM

Paul Jaminet has a great post addressing this.

But what of the sweet taste? Is it really a sensor for carbohydrates? If so it does a rather poor job. The healthiest carbohydrate source ??? starch, which is fructose-free ??? hardly activates this taste, while fructose, a toxin, activates it in spades. If this taste evolved to be a carbohydrate sensor, it should have made us aversive to the carbohydrates it detects, as the bitter taste makes us avoid toxins. But sweet tastes are attractive!

It turns out that the sweetness receptors are complex; many things activate them, and they appear to serve multiple functions.

(Read for more!)

Here is a follow on post at gnolls.com Why Snack Food Is Addictive: The Grand Unified Theory of Snack Appeal.

2248abf977dd5d09733f5d4e2510fc12

(147)

on May 22, 2011
at 02:19 AM

that post is indeed great!

3
07c86972a3bea0b0dc17752e9d2f5642

on May 22, 2011
at 01:31 PM

Sugar is a trap that fruits evolved to get animals to eat their seeds and then, with help from the poisons in the seeds, pass them through undigested and fertilized. It's a pretty awesome trap too considering that the toxic sugar does not induce satiety so as not to inhibit animals from obsessively stuffing their faces with it.

Not everything we eat is somehow because of our benefit. We're just smart enough (dumb enough) to get the toxic bait ourselves now and turn it into pleasure inducing super toxic bait. This is not a new concept for humans. We're like moths who have learned to harness fire.

2
667f6c030b0245d71d8ef50c72b097dc

(15976)

on May 22, 2011
at 01:56 AM

I'd say sugars aren't bad for you. Sugar in fruit, even the not as sweet ones around a long time ago, was good fuel for us. It was rare. We developed a taste for it cuz it was rare and valuable so we are born to eat it when we find it. We have too much of it around us now.

I'm not saying to drink your tea with sugar but I think the amounts that would have been around a long time ago in whatever goodies we could scrounge would have fueled us well.

1
E7be2ce38158357f5dacae07b43d1b29

on May 22, 2011
at 02:28 AM

Sugars act on the pleasure centers of the brain, like lots of other things and activities. Things that taste sweet in nature abound. As a kid, I learned to pull out the red flowers of clover plants and suck on the white tips where the sweet nectar is. As mentioned, obviously fruit can be very sweet, and also provide a lot of nutrients. Many veggies and even grasses are sweet to the taste. The "bad" part comes in when it's packed into everything and we become emotionally adapted to expect it in nearly everything, and then more recently in history, to where the sugars are refined so that they no longer behave in the body the way natural sugars do.

Aside from all of that, I think humans in developed nations are so far removed from survival and appreciating food due to its abundance (vs. the paucity at times that would have plagued our ancestors and does still plague our relative in the third wold nations) that we seek to indulge ("let them eat cake") because we can. Self control seems to have gone out the window in the last few decades, perhaps because it's not necessary for basic survival (note: "survival" in this context does not equal optimum health, feeling good and energetic, avoiding disease, etc, but simply being alive and functioning to some degree).

Add to all of that the fact that Big Agribiz wants to make money by promoting foods derived from the easiest grown and processed crops ----> corn into HFCs, wheat into everything, sell, sell, sell. Get us hooked and sell, sell, sell.

1
Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25472)

on May 22, 2011
at 02:24 AM

same reasons diamonds are a girls best friend....they are rare therefore treasured....sugar was rare evolutionary speaking. It grew seasonally and only year round around the equator.

Ab19df3ededa28f7bf7daeba8435b205

(1471)

on May 22, 2011
at 01:44 PM

(info: google "diamonds arent really rare", plus watch blood diamond (good movie even it is fictinalized) and other "how things are made" type shows)

Ab19df3ededa28f7bf7daeba8435b205

(1471)

on May 22, 2011
at 01:43 PM

Diamonds actually arent really rare, it is the diamond markets that hold the commodity and advertise it as rare. Plus the human life lost to get them makes them even less appealing.I have one only because that is only way my husband would purchase an engagement ring because it is engrained in mens heads that their woman wants and must have one, then girls are brainwashed to think the bigger the more he loves me(on a side note, i find that the bigger the diamond the quicker the divorce :)

0fd24d837dbad54740f53cc5f72068a0

(285)

on May 22, 2011
at 04:36 PM

Maybe I'm wrong and there are places where fruit grows year round, but I live near the equator and apart from some citrus, the fruit production is very seasonal. Everything I know about fruit production says stress (dry season, cold, etc) is needed for good yield. From what I understand, most trees don't 'grow' and flower and the same time.

902a7cd8f96bbc917a04e92b1f49dbd7

(787)

on May 22, 2011
at 07:13 PM

Fruits of various kinds grow year round in India. Stress can induce flowering/fruiting (the plant wants to reproduce while it can). But so can consistently favorable conditions, which aren't uncommon in the tropics.

1
Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on May 22, 2011
at 01:59 AM

Remember we have to take the environment of evolutionary adaptation into consideration. The form of sugar back then was berries, which are good for you. The modern discordance between what we are adapted to and the crazy stuff we do with our technology is what produces problems.

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on May 22, 2011
at 03:13 AM

Also this all assumes that our love for fructose evolved during hunter-gatherer time. It evolved when we were herbivores and apparently was never lost. Wild berries are plenty sweet. It is the fruits like apples and bananas that weren't.

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on May 22, 2011
at 03:00 AM

In Africa you get a lot of berries for a long time. Does it snow there?

A089b683ee0498f2b21b7edfa300e405

(3895)

on May 22, 2011
at 02:26 AM

Back then, it was more likely honey, berries were seasonal and not as sweet..

0
3c997ffae3db9464325b96979346d9e9

on May 22, 2011
at 06:17 PM

There are no poisonous sweet fruits

2248abf977dd5d09733f5d4e2510fc12

(147)

on May 22, 2011
at 08:06 PM

makes sense. got urls to back that up?

0
Da75ccb9bc835fea45a5ed9c6ecb0662

on May 22, 2011
at 04:23 PM

I'd go with a combination of the 'toxic trap' hypothesis, and the idea that sugar in nature is somewhat rare (and valuable - having full glycogen stores might very well enhance your ability to survive - by enabling you to do high intensity activities longer, such as hunting or escaping hunt), also fruits hold valuable nutrition (phytochemicals), so in the end fruits are food that the plant offers as a trade off for you helping it with it pollination. Whether it is a good trade off, or you are being tricked (poison trap) depends on the situation - the fruit, your metabolic situation and so on...

Also as a side node - the highest concentration of sugar, occurring in the natural world, and hunter gatherers favorite food number one - is Honey - which the bees obviously don't intend for us to consume, but which again is their pay (are they also being tricked?) by flowers to help them pollinate. The sugar in honey is popular among native people, probably because it is a super dense source of calories and replenishes glycogen, as wells a provide some other nutrition, and off course tastes awesome.

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