How America Reigns Supreme in Sugary Modern Desserts (And Why That’s Not Always a Good Thing)

(but really though, I’m not complaining)

This is the most American photo I’ve seen in a while.

Now before I begin, I want to make one thing clear, dear reader; I love dessert. Always have, always will, and have never fully mentally processed that sugar and butter have no nutritional value. I would sooner never eat any food on the savory spectrum if I had to choose, and no amount of Californian sun-loving topless nutritionists (drinking green vomit with a ~paper~ straw) judging other’s dietary choices on the dear old Youtube will keep me from indulging every now and then. Without the near-continuous flow of new baking projects for me to try, I would have lost my sanity to the dear pandemic months ago. So, why embark on a research topic that will force me to ruthlessly shame my favorite treats and delve deeper and deeper into the realization that my most prized desserts are far unhealthier than I ever could have anticipated? Mostly just to have an excuse to write about food. Let’s begin!

The Great American Melting Pot is Made of….

Well, let’s bolster up American desserts before we tear them down, shall we? With cultural influences from all around the world and a wide variety of foodstuffs from around the country culminating into the grand, sugary madness that is the American way of dessert, one could find an interesting backstory behind so many of our most iconic sweets. McKissack references this in her odyssey through some of the most famous American treats, tracing apple pie back to the planting of apple trees by the Pilgrims in the 1600s, and the Southern tradition of red velvet cake originating as a way to boost sales by adding a new color to the cake scene (2012). From boba and mochi (Mikawaya Mochi Ice Cream) to crazy donut flavors (the Panda Donut), areas of high cultural intersection and crisscrossing — such as our very own Los Angeles — is the best of American dessert cuisine, with desserts originating from or inspired by just about every country in the world (Paulino). However, as we will soon see, there is an unfortunate trade-off to being on the nation’s behemoth dessert menu.

…Sugar. Mostly Sugar.

To look at American dessert on a scale that will fully encompass its high caloric, sticky state that it’s in today, we don’t have to go back too far. Sugar was once a rarity for the average person living in the early Americas, consuming only about six pounds per year in the 18th century (Gritz, 2017). As the sugar beet industry rose to greater prominence with slavery in the South, however, sugar rapidly became engrained in the American diet, culminating in an 1876 treaty with Hawaii that rose sugar importation to an all-time high (save for a brief rationing period during World War 2) (Gritz). It’s now become a commonplace feature of the American diet to see sweeteners in nearly everything as part of food processing, especially among lower-income Americans (Krans, 2019, and Gritz). There are, of course, more nefarious underpinnings for all this added sugar. The most obvious example is that food industries have garnered an easy profit by adding more and more sugar over the years and easily out-competing those that refuse to do the same (Krans). While cultural differences help ensure that no two desserts are created equal, the undeniable social pressure within the American diet seems to be, at least in recent history, to either sweeten up or ship out.

The Blue Cookie You Should Have Always Feared

Why does this white (sometimes powdery…) sugary additive sound like the new crack? Partially because it is crack, and worse (as you can see by the history of sugar in this country) is the fact that it’s actually a quite old crack. Terribly old. (Perhaps a better comparison would be tobacco, but you youngsters out there wouldn’t enjoy that as much). As a result of all this extra sugar, the average American consumes 82 grams of added sugar per day, more than three times the daily maximum of 25. This, unsurprisingly, is linked to a higher rate of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease (Gregoire, 2017). The most disturbing culprit is not the obvious sources of sugar in the cookies, cake, and ice cream we consume, but rather the hidden added sugar reserves that are so easily found in American food, from low-fat yogurt and cereal to fruit juice and granola bars (Krans). (I am most disappointed by these added sugars invading my yogurt; had I known, I would have just been buying Yoplait all this time rather than convincing myself I was eating healthier by choosing Chobani).

Any Hope For Our Lost Souls?

While bad cultural habits are notoriously hard to break, there has been a trend, now more than ever, to acknowledge and address this issue within the American diet and reassess our relationship and interpretation of what a “good dessert” must be. Believe it or not, there is a current downward trend in dessert consumption within the U.S. — with a 15 percent decrease from our 1999 peak — and, even more subtly, in how sweet these selected desserts are (Makalintal, 2020). It’s been argued that this shift is a response to not only this previous era’s emphasis of overindulgence but also to wider recognition and exposure to global desserts that have always been lower in added sugar, with the description of “not too sweet” being a high form of praise in most traditional Asian desserts (Makalintal). While this expansion in our palate and definitions of what constitutes dessert will likely be a better balancing factor for the American diet, I hope to close out by emphasizing the fact that, as sugary and sweet our American dessert scene is, there’s no shame in this national sweet tooth and indulging in the American classics. We all can rest easy with whatever candy, dessert, or treat we fancy. This exploration into America’s relationship with sugar is, first and foremost, merely a reflection of the fact that we as a country must recognize the role it plays in our lives and diets, in ways that have been sneakily swiped under the rug for so long.