Sugar: It’s Not Sex, It’s Security

It never occurred to me, when I was pregnant, that I would one day have to taste my own breastmilk. See, you need to pump and store milk for your baby so that you can have a life: attend the festival you produced, for example, or make it to client meetings. To test whether or not the stored milk is still good, you need to taste it. If it’s sweet, it’s good. If it has no flavour or is sour, throw it out.

This is why I find myself standing in the kitchen at four o’clock in the morning, discovering that breastmilk is astonishingly sweet. It’s rich with lactose, a kind of sugar, so it makes sense that it’s sweet. For days I think about this, how the maternal body produces a substance that is pleasurable for newborns to consume. Why is that? If it were simply full of protein, and more or less tasteless, wouldn’t the baby still drink it and grow? Are mothers trying to make babies happy, even at a cellular level?

First Photo of Noelle, 2 hours old

I think of this as I look down into the face of my daughter. At a certain point, she stops fussing and closes her eyes. She could be asleep, except for the vice-like latch of her mouth on my nipple. I let her feed until she stops herself. Her face is puffy and damp, and her tiny belly is rounded with milk. She falls asleep fully at this point. For these post-feeding sleeps I could burp her, hold her upside down, or change her, without waking her. It’s her deepest sleep of the day.

However, babies grow in fits and starts. Some days she seems satisfied, and other days she “cluster feeds” and I run out of milk for her. It is on one of these days that I call the organic foodstore to see if they carry formula. “No,” came the curt reply, and I felt the judgement in the woman’s voice. “We don’t have formula of any kind here.” I wanted to explain that I agree with her that breastfeeding is the more healthful choice, but instead I simply thank her and hung up. She probably has a whole brood of pink-cheeked kids with names like Rain and Echo.

This is where the idea for this blog solidified: standing in the baby aisle at the drugstore, reading the list of ingredients on the backs of formula bottles. Lactose, maltodextrin, cane sugar, glucose extract, corn syrup…sweet, sweet, sweet. I knew, from my earlier taste test, that these would mimic breastmilk. I continue down the aisle and look at all the other options for feeding my daughter. The choices for under 6-month old babies are limited. Sweet potato. Oat cereal with lactose powder. Sweet, sweet, sweet. I purchase some cereal and the formula with the least number of additives, and think about sugar as I walk home.

Before I had a baby, I was working for a fitness company as an Audience Development Manager, and a big part of my job was listening and engaging with our audience in a Facebook Group. People (mostly women), from all over the world, would post their comments about how they were addicted to sugar and didn’t know how to stop their cravings. These posts would get many sympathetic comments; people offering tips such as replacing the pleasure of sugar with something else, something like fruit, taking deep breaths, or doing jumping jacks. Our community recommended anything that would give the brain a jolt of dopamine.

At the time, I took it for granted that these comments were correct. Sugar impacts our brain’s pleasure centre. Everyone knows that, right? We use food, and sugar in particular, as a “reward,” whether consciously or unconsciously. Replacing that moment of reward (for example, “I’ll eat lunch as soon as I finish this report”) with something new (“I’ll go for a quick jog as soon as I finish this report”) can rewire your brain. Suddenly exercise becomes the exciting moment of your day, not the muffin you grabbed for lunch. As marketers, this tactic is something we employ regularly: helping people understand the plasticity of their own neural pathways, and instilling a sense of hopefulness and optimism. As Norman Doidge famously stated, you can “change your brain.”

However, it takes months, and possibly years, to rewire the reward centre of your brain. In “Women, Food and God,” which is wonderful, Geneen Roth describes her workshop participants with great compassion. Several times a year, Roth will run a retreat for compulsive eaters, overeaters, the anorexic, and anyone suffering from food-related obsessions.

About sugar in particular, Roth asks her students, “Who is the one that wants to eat unending sweets? Is it the four-year-old who is having a tantrum? Is it the eight-year-old who has just been told she is chubby? Who is actually running your life?” She talks about how our relationship with food and our bodies is a reflection of our relationship with the world. “There is a whole universe to discover between “I’m feeling empty” and turning to food to make it go away…But staying with the emptiness—entering it, welcoming it, using it to get to know ourselves better, being able to distinguish the stories we tell ourselves about it from the actual feeling itself—that’s radical.” Sweets are, for so many of us, our “comfort food.” But for my infant daughter, sweetness is life. It is the taste of survival.

Indeed, sugar, or more accurately glucose, is literally essential to our survival. Everyone knows that when your blood sugar is low, your brain does not function properly. “Hangry” is not a meme, it’s the reality of getting confused and frustrated when we need glucose. We need enough glucose in our body so that insulin can facilitate its uptake into energy. Our brain requires 50% of that glucose energy for our neurotransmitters to properly connect. As adults, we get more than enough glucose from a healthy diet of whole foods. Eating fructose-laden, sweet foods is overkill: the excess glucose will be stored in our body in the form of fat cells.

None of this is news for anyone who’s studied neurology, or basic health science, even. As marketers, however, we are off the mark when we assume sugar is impacting peoples’ reward centres, and leave it at that. We can never reach people’s hearts and minds that way. Our relationship with the taste of sugar begins far earlier than childhood. We are born into sweetness. It’s our security blanket, not our sex surrogate. Perhaps if we rewire this part of our brain that feels off-kilter, disconnected, and out of control, we can say goodbye to our sugar addictions once and for all. We could finally grow past our emotional infancy into the confident adults we are all meant to be.

I think about all this at home as I pour the cereal into a bowl and add hot water. I taste it for temperature. I’m not shocked to realize how sweet it is. Here I am responsible for the entire future of another human being’s relationship with food, and I am providing her with nothing but sweet, sugary options. Is she learning to use food as a reward? Since I have no other options for her age category, I choose to assume that sweetness is not the “evil” sugar that we know of as adults, the thing that gives us cellulite and a negative outlook. This must just be natural for her now, and it’s only later, when she matures, will she have to put sweetness in its rightful place in her diet.

My daughter falls asleep, murmuring happily, after eating cereal and washing it down with some breastmilk. She allows me to move her to her bassinet without even opening her eyes. This, I think, is what we are craving when we crave sugar. Sure, it may be pleasurable to feel the release of dopamine, but it’s the safety of our mothers’ arms we crave. It’s our first meals, and the intimacy of them. My job as her mother is to transition her from seeking the breast for comfort to seeking comfort in her own company, in her imaginative world, in her healthy, robust body. In other words, to teach her about the sweetness of life, of which sugar is only a minuscule part.