The moral argument

SWEET: Elizabeth Farrelly says nature intended sugar to be rare, a reward, a treat. Photo: Shutterstock
SWEET: Elizabeth Farrelly says nature intended sugar to be rare, a reward, a treat. Photo: Shutterstock

At the local gastro-pub I was leaning to the burger option. It sounded all right. Grass-fed beef, fresh radicchio, organic greens, aioli. Then, I asked about the bun. I hoped for sourdough, or at least proper house-made bread, but the waiter came back quick and proud. "Brioche." Blech. I went with pizza. Guaranteed fat, salt, carbs and E-numbers, but at least it wouldn't taste like pudding.

Maybe you've noticed. Everything tastes like pudding now. We all vow to quit sugar and a new year is opportune – especially this new year, with diabetes and obesity rising around us. But even as we speak, going sugarless is becoming all but impossible.

These days most supermarket bread tastes like cake. Sushi rolls are like seaweed-wrapped rice pudding with sweet mayo. Chai, which should be peppery, is a lab-made syrup. Spirits come pre-mixed with uber-sweet lollywater. Teens routinely suck sugar drinks for "energy" and toiletries, from shampoo to body lotion, reek faux-edibly of vanilla custard or butterscotch.

Less known but more sinister is that fruit and vegetables – our healthy alternative – are also getting sweeter. This includes obvious things like melons, but also foods whose main virtue is in their sourness (such as tomatoes) or bitterness (kale).

Monsanto's Beneforte broccoli, EverMild onion, Frescada lettuce and EverSummer melon may not be genetically modified. Indeed, being laboratory-bred, they may be technically organic, the crowd-pleasing "super-veggies" of next-wave health conscious consumerism. Designed to secure Monsanto's purchase in the supermarket's coveted outer aisles and sold now in 150 countries, Monsanto's 21 super-veges may have higher vitamin and antioxidant content than the originals. But they're also much, much sweeter.

It's like we're all suddenly four years old and our taste-spectrum has shifted fifty points to the sweet. Cake is the new bread, candy the new cake, fruit the new veg. Our response to this escalating sucro-addiction is even stranger. Despite epidemic diabetes (amputations rose 25 per cent between 2014 and 2016), obesity at 30 per cent and all kinds of new fat-linked cancers, we act like it's mere mechanics. Garcon! I'm fat. Have it fixed, could you?

A recent article by UK psychiatrist Rafael Euba argued that "applying a human moral construct to nature by dividing foods and lifestyles into good and bad is misleading. In reality, nothing in nature is either good or bad."

What nonsense. Of course food is a moral issue. Euba's argument is strictly about whether red wine or animal fat are really bad for you, but his failure to parse the moral issues, or to distinguish the semantic shades of good (good to eat, good for you and morally good) doesn't mean such issues and distinctions don't exist.

In truth food, in its various aspects – aesthetic, environmental, health, communal and providential – is core moral territory. Food involves killing, discipline, creativity, generosity, control, respect and gratitude. It involves taking the world inside the self, and therefore sits at the heart of the self-world relationship. How could it be anything other than moral?

Sugar is no exception. We want to consider it value-neutral; to believe that eating yourself into limb-loss or endometrial cancer is just some random event. Sooner or later, though, we'll have to recognise the moral allegory bedded into sugar's delicious centre, since we can't fix it if we don't understand the cause.

I know. You hate that word moral. Discussing food in moral terms seems dangerously close to fat-shaming. But morality is just life wisdom. Moral rules are those that enhance long-term, big-picture health and happiness. They're not strictures, they're gifts. Consolidated eons of collected insight. Tips.

In sugar's case, my image is of an Indigenous Australian kid shinnying up a tree for the sugar-bag. Native honey. It's a rare treat, a small quantum and he's taking a risk to get it – height, bark, goannas. Plus, if he does prevail, the honey will have to be shared.

In other words, sugar is meant as a rarity, a reward, a treat. This is supported by the absence of nutritional value, and the sense of satiety that sugar brings, which is why it is traditionally used as the endpoint of the meal.

We've decided it's fine to mess with this, to consume sugar constantly and whenever. Which is where Big Food steps in, rubbing its greedy hands.

They want sweet? We'll give 'em sweet. Sweet bread, cherry tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, even sweet broccoli. In a market-forces context, this means the decisions on what goes into our bodies are made by white-coated chemists serving multinational corporates in industrial labs. They have zero interest in our wellbeing, and zero responsibility for it. Why would we trust them?

We know that bitter foods – water-cress, rocket, radish – help digestion, stimulate bile production, contain fibre, enhance metabolism and improve nutrient absorption. They're also nutrient-rich, reduce free radicals and support liver detoxification. There are also floods of research linking gut health to mental health. So perhaps it's not surprising that a recent study by epidemiologist Dr Joanna Dipnall made sugar one of five major risk factors for depression.

Of course the causality is complex. But what's interesting is our response, our infantile yearning to outsource responsibility, make it someone else's problem, hoping some government will impose a sugar tax.

Maybe, instead of ingesting the sugar and externalising responsibility, we could flip it around; take a little control, get off our fat moral arses, find some moral fibre and drop some of that weight.