Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sugar Consumption Past and Present Through the Lens of Cookie Recipes

I recently received a book titled The First American Cookie Lady--it was a recipe collection/diary of an early American woman trying to create treats out of everyday baking ingredients. I ordered it so I could get a sense of the sugar use back before WWI, along with my Hearts & Homes, and Prairie Kitchen books.

It doesn't seem to matter where one lived (rural or urban) as far as sugar consumption in recipes goes--recipes called for as much as 3 cups to a recipe up until we got closer to war time. The normal and customary 3 cups of sugar then became 2 cups, and quite often those 2 cups were a mix of white and brown sugar. Right before war time, 2 cups became 1 cup (this was considered rationing), and there were a few recipes that required 1/2 cup or less of sugar. Most cut the sugar down to 1/2 cup and added another source: molasses, corn syrup, honey, jams/jellies, or brown sugar entirely (like that makes a difference!). The biggest items of rationing it seemed were eggs and wheat, replaced by corn meal and baking powder.

Back then cakes, cookies, and anything requiring sugar were occasional treats, not an everyday occurrence.

After WWI, sugar seems to go back up to 1 cup as the standard for recipes, then drops down to 1/2 cup, and then we have WWII, where rationing has us going from 1/4 cup all the way down to the occasional teaspoon here and there. Cakes and cookies were expected to help fill out an otherwise "skimpy" meal, and darn near became a daily ritual.

With WWII over, the usual and customary sugar measure is right around 1/2 cup and falling. Looking back, I'm surprised there weren't more cases of diabetes and obesity. Why weren't there?

The answer: activity level. Before WWI, people mainly lived on farms, and had lots of chores to do every day. Very little was mechanized until after WWII--then mechanizations and conveniences were multiplying before our eyes. Compared to pre-WWI activity levels, we're practically comatose nowadays.

Now the news is telling us that more than mere teaspoons' consumption per day causes atherosclerosis. What's truly frightening is that I saw that same warning (even using the big word "atherosclerosis") in a cookbook written back in 1976 (my More With Less book--page 18). If we knew about atherosclerosis way back then, why didn't the medical community speak up louder like they do now? How many lives could've been saved, or extended, with that knowledge? Sure, we didn't have little pills to combat it like we do now, but this shows you don't need those pills when measuring sugar by the teaspoon (instead of the cup or half-cup) will do.

As for the cookbook titled More With Less, yeah they preach a good story about doing more with less, and how we all should consume less sugar (less of everything really), but then the recipes go on to call for 1/2 cup, 1 full cup, and combining sweeteners just like recipes did between the wars. You should see their writeup on meat consumption, then go check out the recipes--standard USDA serving sizes go right out the window! That's what happens when the IDEA of social justice through food conservation meets up with the realities of wealth and taste.

CORRECTION: Recipes in the book More With Less are for crowds of 8-12 people. I neglected to mentally register the yields on them, so the sugar called for would truly be less, not more. One cup of sugar divided among 8 people would equal 1/8 cup per person (the AHA recommendation). The same goes for the meat listings in the recipes: the amount given in the recipes is supposed to cover a crowd, so again, more turns out to be less. My apologies, Doris--I failed to take in the yield on your recipes.

Now we have diabetic cookbooks which rely heavily on sugar alternatives (alcohols, stevia, Splenda, Nutrasweet, and the like) which can cause allergic reactions because they're foreign to the human body. Nutrasweet and Splenda are neurotoxins, which can numb and paralyze if used incorrectly or by people allergic to them. The benefits are a big fat zero on the sugar line of the nutritional label, though, and that alone garners big dollars from the diabetic community and those looking to cut sugar consumption. I have no idea if these products have any effect on atherosclerosis or the avoidance of it.

Saccharin, as we now know, is a known cancer-causer, yet it was widely used as a sugar replacement from WWII on until sometime in the 70's or 80's.

Honey is currently eschewed by vegans because it is considered an animal protein--apparently bees are animals and not insects. Vegans prefer to use agave, which is made from the same plant that tequila comes from. Hmmm...

Where does all this leave the average person? Well, it leaves me pondering the past, pondering my own past when it came to sugar consumption, congratulating myself for current levels of consumption, and looking forward to new lower levels of consumption--adjusting the taste buds doesn't happen overnight.

In the news recently: "Of the various kinds of added sugars, the worst seems to be fructose. Found in high-fructose corn syrup and plain table sugar, it forces your liver to pump out more LDL and triglycerides, which indirectly makes your body flush out healthy HDL cholesterol. A sugar overload also fires up chronic, body-wide inflammation and can make your cells less sensitive to insulin, increasing heart disease and diabetes risk."

Wondering how to get your cholesterol numbers back in line? Don't look to fat--look to sugar instead. I don't even want to know what the cholesterol readings of people back in the wars was--with more sugar consumed, and more activity than we see today, they were probably a whole lot better in spite of the sugar.

Taking a sneak peek at a conversion calculator, I see that 1 cup = 16 tablespoons or 48 teaspoons--this is shocking to me, even though I have access to a conversion chart like everyone else. It also brings home the fact that I need to really REALLY work on our sugar here.

1/2 cup = 8T. or 24 t.

1/4 cup = 4T. or 12 t.

American Heart Association recommended limits on daily sugar intake:

Women = 6 t. (2T. or 1/8 cup)

Men = 8 t. (3T. or about 1/6 cup)

Athletes = more.

Our saving grace right now? A super-high fiber intake, and protein combining--this is in conjunction with using the absolutely lowest-sugar foods I can find (both processed and natural).

UPDATE: One last note on sugar use findings: since there were far fewer processed foods in the past, it was okay to use seemingly large quantities of sugar in baked goods--not only were these recipes feeding large families and farm hands, it was pretty much the only sugar in their diets (besides naturally-occurring ones). Nowadays, we have to factor in the sugar in processed foods as well as those we make ourselves--the American Diabetes Assoc. uses no more than 6 grams/serving for their processed food goal, and the American Heart Assoc. uses 2-3T. (depending on gender) in place where we can control the sugar.


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