Dubai: When I tell people that I dislike sweets, they often ask me why and, “What’s your secret?”.
It got me thinking – in a world where sugar is always within reach, and where studies prove that sugar makes us happy and is potentially addictive, why do I still prefer my Americano without a single grain of sweetness?
I’m not alone. My whole family is the same. In fact, a noticeable number of population in China are like us – they would choose a plate of stir fried bok choy over a piece of chocolate cake without blinking an eye.
Daily sugar consumption per capita in China compared to the world
According to online reports, in recent years, the average daily sugar consumption per capita in China is 30.4 grams, nearly half below the world average. In the United States, that number is 84.7 grams. In the UAE, it’s 79.2 grams in 2020. In India, it’s 51.2 grams.
Free sugar intake is associated with obesity and tooth decay. World Health Organisation (WTO) recommends that daily intake of free sugar for both adults and children should be roughly less than 50 grams (12 teaspoons). A further reduction to half of the recommended amount would provide additional health benefits.
Although being one of the major sugar producing countries in the world, China doesn’t seem to have the same enthusiasm for sugar consumption, compared to leading countries or regions in sugar production, such as India, Brazil, the European Union and the United States. Why so?
Dietary habit – a balanced taste
Despite the relatively low sugar consumption per capita, China has been consuming sugar since 3000 years ago. However, unlike modern day sugar, extracted mainly from sugarcane and beet, Chinese people were eating maltose, a sugar produced by the breakdown of starch, as per recorded information in the ancient book ‘Classic of Poetry’, written by various Chinese poets from the period of 11th century B.C. to 6th century B.C.
India discovered how to crystallise sugar from sugarcane, and brought the technology to China around the 6th and 7th century BC, as per what Chinese Indologist, historian and writer Xianlin Ji wrote in his book ‘A History of Sugar’. China then innovated on its sugar-refining technology and potentially exchanged different techniques with India subsequently.
In short, the country is no stranger to sugar. However, it never got hooked to the taste of intense sweetness.
Traditionally, northern central plains, which was the cradle of ancient Chinese civilisation, pursued a moderate seasoning in cooking – it usually balanced these five tastes: sweetness, sourness, bitterness, pungency and saltiness, as explained by Yong Lan, professor of historical geography at the Southwest University in China, and his graduate student Shu Chen, in their 2019 paper on the subject.
Relatively speaking, sugar as a condiment to complete a balanced taste of a dish, was never an outstanding ingredient in a Chinese kitchen. This tradition has continued till today, across regions in China.
That doesn’t mean there are no sweets in China. Various types of sweets include tanghulu, a traditional northern Chinese snack consisting of rock sugar-coated fruits, typically hawthorn, on a bamboo skewer, Osmanthus flower cake, a Chinese pastry made with glutinous rice flour, osmanthus honey and rock sugar, as well as sweet mooncake, a bakery product traditionally eaten during Chinese mid-autumn Festival. Some sweets are made and consumed only for occasions, such as the Lantern Festival.
Certain areas in China are even considered to have a sweet tooth by the Chinese standard. According to Lan and Chen, the degree of sugar consumption in China varies from region to region. ‘Sugar lovers’ are concentrated in the plains near the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. This area includes provinces and cities such as Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shanghai and Anhui.
However, even in sweets, the concept of a moderate seasoning still applies, resulting in a mild sweet taste. Besides, these sweets are not regarded as a part of a main meal. Instead, they are considered ‘snacks’, which is not supposed to be consumed in a big quantity. They are also often had in between meals, with a full stomach, which limits the quantity of intake.
“The concept of food environment encompasses the settings and contexts in which individuals obtain, prepare, and consume their food,” says Dr Chen Zhu, a professor at China Agricultural University, College of Economics and Management. Her current research has focused on integrating genetic data to gain new insights into economic behaviors.
“In China, the accessibility to sugar and sweet food is relatively limited compared to Western countries - this includes beverages with lower sugar contents available in supermarket and smaller packages of granulated white cane sugar sold in stores, resulting in higher costs and a lower propensity for frequent sugar consumption.
When we consume sweet food, the compound of sugar interacts with the taste receptor cells, and triggers a series of biochemical reactions that send signals to our brains, resulting in the perception of sweetness.
“Recent scientific discoveries have found certain taste receptor genes that are linked to sugar intake and preferences. Interestingly, it turns out that based on our genetic profiles, Chinese consumers are more likely to be considered ‘super-tasters’ and have a lower preference for sweetness compared to people of other ethnic backgrounds,” Zhu explained.
“Several genes from the TAS1R and TAS2R Families have been reported to be linked with sugar intake. TAS1R and TAS2R are sweet and bitter taste receptors, respectively, and these genes encode proteins that are part of the taste receptor cells on the taste buds located on the tongue and other parts of the oral cavity. When we consume sweet food, the compound of sugar interacts with the taste receptor cells, and triggers a series of biochemical reactions that send signals to our brains, resulting in the perception of sweetness.
“Variations in these taste receptor genes can influence the sensitivity and response to sweet taste. Chinese may have genetic variants that make our taste receptors more sensitive, meaning Chinese can detect and perceive sweetness at lower concentrations of sugar, and hence a lower level of sugar consumption. On the other hand, some people (from a different ethnic group or population) may have genetic variants that make their taste receptors less sensitive, requiring higher concentrations of sugar (and higher consumption of sugar) to perceive the same level of sweetness.”
China’s hot water drinking habit can intensify taste of sweetness
A research paper, ‘Temperature of served water can modulate sensory perception and acceptance of food’, published on Food Quality and Preference Journal, demonstrates that the consumption of hot water can intensify the taste of sweetness. Participants in the experiment reported feeling intensified sweetness in dark chocolate after drinking water served at 20 or 50 degrees Celsius, compared to after drinking water at a temperature of 4 degrees Celsius.
This may have contributed to Chinese individuals’ less sugar consumption, as the nation possesses the habit of drinking hot water.
What can we take away from Chinese individual’s low sugar consumption?
Although your sweet tooth may have something to do with the environment you are in, and your genes, here are some takeaways that can potentially help reduce your sugar intake:
Treat sweets as snacks instead of a necessary part of a meal
When you have your appetizer and main course, try to leave no room for deserts. Treat deserts as snacks, which you only consume in a small portion in between meals with a full stomach.
Have a flavour-balanced diet
Try and include more flavours in your diet. This might just dilute your desire for the taste of sweetness.
Drink hot water before having your sweets
Drink hot water before having sweets. This may intensify the sweet taste, potentially resulting in less intake quantity. However, keep in mind that the temperature of hot water should not be scorching, so that you don’t burn yourself from drinking it.