Sunday, December 6, 2009


Once upon a time, largely under the tutelage of Adele Davis, the 1960s and 1970s guru of unrefined and otherwise natural foods, refined carbohydrates and especially white sugar were anathema to the nutritionally correct. Extrapolating from the body's rapid digestion and absorption of refined sugar and the increased incidence of diabetes in people who eat too much of it, Davis and others proclaimed white flour and bread, white rice, and particularly white sugar to be something like addictive drugs. Refined carbohydrates were supposed to be responsible for a dizzying variety of ailments and nutritional deficiencies; I don't even remember hearing that much about diabetes.

The faithful eschewed "poisonous white sugar" in favor of brown rice, brown bread and brown sugar. Some enthusiasts went so far as to favor brown eggs over white ones. (In point of fact, dark bread is usually produced with caramel coloring and often a minimum of whole-grain flour, if any; almost all brown sugar is white sugar with a bit of molasses added back into it; and the color of an egg is a function of the breed of chicken and has nothing to do with the nutrients inside. Debate continues, as far as I know, about the relative merits of whole and refined grains.)

In the days when the gourmet health food chain then called Bread and Circus still made a fetish of avoiding anything that had to be called "sugar," two women approached the bulk bins, surveying the selection of chocolate candies.

"It's all natural," one enthused to the other. "There's no sugar -- it's just all natural."

A third woman, apparently unknown to them, happened by and made her way into the conversation.

"Oh, there's sugar in it. It wouldn't be sweet if there wasn't. It's fructose, fruit sugar, which is a little easier on your teeth, but it's still sugar."

"Oh, no," the first woman persisted. "It's all natural. It's much better for you."

"Yes, but if you look at the list of ingredients, the second one listed is dates. Dates have a whole lot of sugar. That's why they're sweet. It's still sugar."

"Oh, but it's all natural."

"So," the interloper put in, "is deadly nightshade." End of conversation.

Bread and Circus eventually figured out that the case against refined carbohydrates had been overstated; acknowledged that all that ruckus about "poisonous white sugar" was never altogether defensible; and explained that the familiar yellow Domino bags would henceforth appear on the chain's hitherto pure shelves. Within the same time frame, curiously, Bread and Circus's stores were bought by and renamed Whole Foods -- ironically, just as more refined carbohydrates crept onto the shelves, whole grain pasta, e.g., retreated, and whole food was exactly what they weren't selling as much of.

Hype notwithstanding, those "all natural" date-sweetened candies were wonderful. Like all-fruit jams -- which cost more than their fruit-flavored-sugar-syrup counterparts, have almost as much sugar, and probably aren't any healthier -- the "all natural" chocolates aimed at a niche that required them to forswear not just sugar but also suspicious-sounding concoctions like the "sugar alcohol" that figures in sugar-free candies for diabetics. Health food store candy has to be made of ingredients recognizable as food.

Either because an excess of date purée would noticeably flavor the chocolate; because dates are no cheaper than the other ingredients; or for some other reason, the "all natural" chocolate was just a bit less sweet than those whose manufacturers feel free to add as much high fructose corn syrup as the traffic will bear. And while there was no detectable flavor of dates, one could imagine that the complex flavor of the chocolate carried the faintest fruity undertone.

I don't know what's in health food store candy now, but it isn't nearly as good as those date-sweetened chocolates. It's too bad that reason and common sense prevailed in the chocolate department.