Book Review: The Taste of Sweet

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The current zeitgeist of popular food non-fiction books leans more towards the puritan than the hedonistic. Michael Pollan’s catchy phrase “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” doesn’t also instruct you to enjoy a big slice of apple pie a la mode after dinner.

So it makes sense that those of us with incurable sweet tooths often hide them, pretending to like sweets less than we do. Heartily enjoying dessert is seen as unhealthy and unsophisticated.

But finally there’s a book that not only doesn’t shame us for our weakness, but also helps us understand why we have it.

The Taste of Sweet: Our Complicated Love Affair with our Favorite Treats is a thoughtful look into the scientific, psychological, and historic reasons why Americans love sweets. But this isn’t a diet book, or a lecture. The author, Joanne Chen, is an unabashed sweetaholic who juxtaposes sociological findings with personal anecdotes and joyous descriptions of sugar of all kinds. Her strong narrative writing easily carries the reader through serious scientific information.

Sure, you’ll read about the negative health implications of overindulging. But there’s also a look into why sugar might be more-effective for dieters than artificial sweeteners. She talks to scientists who are working to make oatmeal cookies taste more like oatmeal, and more scarily, ones working to make the flavor of strawberries as predictable as the flavor of strawberry cookies.

The book isn’t problem free. She’s a little too happy to talk to PR flacks, without taking enough of a critical eye towards what they’re saying. And at times, the narrative jumps discordantly. We wonder if it was the victim of too many late-night cut and pastes.

You’ll have to quickly adjust – a chapter starts out discussing about different countries’ perceptions of dieting and “bad” foods, then jumps into a meeting of the Baskin-Robbins product development team for a few paragraphs. We don’t find out what new products they launch until after jumping back to the guilt over food in the United States, and a history of how the slave trade impacted the sugar trade.

But still, we’d definitely recommend this book to Kitchn readers, and particularly those of us who can’t stop making pies or cakes or cookies. While it might slow you down a bit, so you don’t go diving headfirst into that apple pie, ultimately that’s a good thing. If we take a little more time to savor our sweets, perhaps we’ll finally learn how to balance our diets.


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