In Filipino cuisine, sugar is everywhere, not just in desserts like halo-halo and leche flan or snacks like turon and suman but also in savory dishes like adobo, tocino, and even our local version of spaghetti. Beverages—from coffee and tea to juices and shakes—rarely go without sugar, and this ubiquity has led people to conclude that we Filipinos have an exceptionally sweet tooth.
The “exceptionally” is important because having a sweet tooth can actually be said of the whole of humanity. Of course there’s always variation: Some individuals and populations experience umay faster than others, but generally, humans like sweet stuff, and the word “sweet” itself is a metaphor for good things in life.
According to scientists, the human preference for sweets was an adaptation of a time when food was scarce. Imagine a cave man who survived on hunting and gathering. Simply put, his preference for sweet (and therefore high-calorie) foods like ripe fruits and honey allowed him to maximize his efforts for the greatest amount of energy.
The advent of agriculture made food much easier to get, but cane sugar itself—the refined form had its origins in fifth-century India—remained rare, to a point that Europeans considered it as a precious spice for centuries. Anthropologist Sidney Mintz writes that the scarcity of sugar made it a status symbol; nobles displayed “subtleties” made of sugar as a sign of wealth. For a long time, it was also used as a medicine.
Colonialism, the slave trade, industrialization, and the rise of beet sugar all contributed to the mass production and global reach of sugar, and today, in the words of paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman, “we retain Stone Age bodies that crave sugar but live in a Space Age world in which sugar is cheap and plentiful.”
The Philippines was very much part of sugar’s history, being in the region where sugarcane originated, and where sugar haciendas figured greatly in its colonial economy. This heritage of sugar production hints at why Filipinos use sugar in everything: As historian John Larkin wrote, sugar manufacturers expanded the domestic market “by exciting the Filipino taste for their product” through ad campaigns and free packets of sugar. Sugar’s place as a status symbol, its sheer addictive quality, relatively cheap prices, and our being accustomed to high levels of it in our foods can thus explain why Filipinos have a sweet tooth.
Today we know that too much sugar is deleterious to our health and accelerates the aging process; we humans simply were not designed to metabolize it in the form and amount in which it is commonly consumed. It is no coincidence that diabetes, which is essentially a disease of sugar metabolism, skyrocketed globally only with the spread of sugar, from cosmopolitan supermarkets to the sari-sari stores of far-flung communities.
Interestingly, in a reversal of the past, a sugar-free diet is now in vogue among the affluent, and foods with “no sugar added” are the new status symbols. Even so, many continue to embrace sugary foods and drinks, made cheap and widespread by technologies that produce food rich in flavor but poor in nutrition. Accustomed to sweet foods since our childhoods, most of us are desensitized to the sweetness; unmindful of the political economy of sugar, most of us simply assume that we naturally have a sweet tooth.
Faced with this knowledge, the challenge for us is to rethink our diets (five or six teaspoons of sugar per day is the Food Nutrition Research Institute recommendation)—and to hold to account the industries that profit from our sugar overconsumption. Policies like a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages deserve consideration—but they must be accompanied by the promotion of affordable alternatives.
Moreover, everyone should be able to make informed choices—that is, to know exactly how much sugar they consume, including in fast food meals, drinks, and desserts, and what it means for their health. Surely, everyone deserves some leche flan on Christmas Eve, ice cream on their birthday, and halo-halo on the hottest summer day. But as with most things in life, moderation is key.