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We had about 40 people for an event at the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine recently where we served a taco bar for the main meal. This is a great way for us to show off how to translate the Mediterranean diet for the American kitchen. While not strictly American (what food is, really?), we have adopted them as if they were our own. There are tens of thousands of Mexican restaurants and the phrase "taco truck" is often synonymous with "food truck." Many tacos are not very healthy, however. Take Taco Bell, for example. We know that their food isn't really food, with their taco filling being only 36%1 meat although they claim it contains 88% meat. (Neither of those numbers is very reassuring.)
But tacos can be healthy. Taco shells are whole grain corn (avoid wheat based tortillas, they are not much more than sugar). You can put great fillings in tacos – fish, veggies, lean meats, corn, and beans – along with onions, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, and a host of other fresh toppings. It's easy to rack up a lot of points on the Mediterranean diet score by eating tacos.
But that's not what I want to talk about.
At the end of the event we served dessert. Now, I am not a dessert guy, but people expect it and we do have a lot of great dessert recipes that are lower in calories. In fact, one of our modules in the cooking series for the community and for medical students focuses on great tasting snacks and desserts. One of those recipes is a fantastic banana ice cream made with frozen bananas. That's it. Frozen bananas in the food processor. It's delicious, and the team served this at the event along with a light dusting of caramelized sugar.
One of the participants asked about this during the Q&A and wondered how we felt that serving dessert was appropriate. Mind you, this wasn't really accusatory. In fact, after clarification it was clear that the question was really seeking comment on the issue of sugar overconsumption.
We do eat a lot of sugar. The average American consumes 152 pounds of sugar per year2. That's a lot, and to put some of it in perspective, a 20 ounce bottle of Coca Cola contains 16 teaspoons of sugar. That's about 1/3 cup of sugar. Try to get 16 teaspoons of sugar to dissolve in a 20 ounce glass of iced tea sometime. It really can't be done.
My answer was to speak first to the recipe itself. Yes, it was sweet, but it was a banana with about a half teaspoon of sugar sprinkled on top for texture and to add a bit of caramelized flavor. That's not bad, and sugar is not bad either, but too much sugar is definitely bad and food manufacturers add so many sugars in so many different forms it's hard to keep track. In most cases the food processors obscure the name of sugar with terms such as natural sweeteners or cane syrup. The popular yogurt, Yoplait, has both high fructose corn syrup and sugar listed on the ingredient list along with two artificial sweeteners. That's not yogurt. That's candy.
Nor does it matter what form that added sugar comes in: it's still sugar. High fructose corn syrup, granulated sugar, agave nectar, honey, maple syrup, cane syrup… It is all the same, for the most part, and we have a lot of sources to choose from. Candy, soda, muffins, cookies, cakes, coffee drinks, and ice cream are the obvious sources, but in truth, it is in almost everything. Look, some candy and ice cream are great every now and then, but the tremendous, daily consumption is the issue – not the occasional dessert at a dinner function. For a great perspective on this, read this profile of Bill Yosses3, the [now former] White House pastry chef.
That's the easy part, of course, because everyone knows that there is sugar in a candy bars, cereals, and ice cream. The real challenge is all of the hidden sugars in processed foods. High fructose corn syrup and other cheap sugars are in everything from mac and cheese to salad dressings to chili. In truth, a lot of our sugar calories come from sources you would not even expect.
Which leads us back to tacos (sort of). Tacos can be bad. Dessert can be bad. Sugar can be bad. But all of them can be good and, as with everything you eat, it is the balance you strike. That balance should be tipped far in the favor of fresh food you make yourself and very, very little processed products of any kind.
So should you eat dessert? Yes. Every day? No.