In more ways than one.
As a generalization, the Thai people are more outwardly sweet than most cultures. It’s evident in the way they greet others, including their own, by folding their hands while slightly bowing their heads. They are typically smiling, pleasant, and respectful. Compared to other societies, the sweetness of the Thai people stands out. The Land of Smiles, while it may be an outward appearance, is one of the many charms of Thailand.
One of the other attractions is the distinctiveness of their food. But, and it’s a big but, over the past couple of generations, Thai’s have embraced the use of sugar in most of their meals. Almost every prepared dish has sugar as an added ingredient. Even sautéed vegetables are sugared. Most savory dishes have added sugar. It’s a phenomenon.
When I see young school-age Thai folk, it’s evident that a large chunk does not appear in ideal physical condition. A bulk of them look out of shape, with more extra weight in the wrong places than young people should have, especially youthful Asians. If I didn’t know better, I’d predict that Thailand is headed for a health crisis in the next few generations.
Out of interest, I took several Thai cooking courses at different Bangkok schools. In each, the students prepare and eat their individual dishes. In each, I declared that I wanted to cook without sugar. I was the oddball out in every workshop. In one class, six students were grouped together to prepare a dish, but I was castigated on my own due to my sugarless request. The chef in that school tasted the sugar-free chili paste, peanut sauce, and Tom Yam soup I had prepared and liked them all. Of course, she could have been fibbing to be polite. But then again she admitted she had eliminated sugar from her diet the prior year to slim down. An instructor in another school disclosed that her sister, a doctor, recommended that she stop cooking with sugar because it was unhealthy. (Hmm,…yet she continues to instruct cooking with sugar).
When I ask Thai chefs/cooks why they add sugar to most dishes, the answer almost uniformly is “it makes the food tastes better.” Really? Adding sweetness to already flavorful food so it tastes even better? Couldn’t that be considered a form of crafty trickery?
As a fan of Thai food, it’s more than a little disconcerting to know that sugar is being added to most dishes. To be clear, I’m not referring to desserts and sweet treats, of which, as in most cultures these days, there are plenty. In Thai dishes, sugar is added to main meal dishes, those that typically don’t have, or need, added sugar. Popular dishes such as Pad Thai and green papaya salad, (Som Tum) — both have added sugar. Peanut sauce used for sauteés — added sugar. Stir-fried vegetables — added sugar. Savory soups — added sugar.
The Thai food on the street is damn tasty. But to order a dish with no sugar is a challenge. When I do, the smile is replaced by forehead wrinkles. If sugar is left out, the tendency is to add more msg, Maggie seasoning, and/or honey. It’s become reflexive to add processed flavoring to the food. There are so many natural spices available that adding a tablespoon or two of sugar and msg seems like overkill. And indeed it might be.
Smart people who study cognitive neuroscience know that sugar is a deceptive drug and acts on the brain the same way that cocaine, opioids, and for that matter, any other pleasure substance does. The more we have, the more we want, and the more it takes to satisfy us. Credible researchers have shown that the world’s consumption of sugar has grown almost exponentially over the last few hundred years. Concerning evolution, that means we’ve just started gorging (overdosing?) on sweetness. During that same time, we’ve seen a parallel increase in lifestyle diseases, as well as epigenetic disorders (which we now know are hereditary).
In a savory dish, it can be hard to detect the addition of a teaspoon of white sugar. Sure the dish tastes good. Everyone in the world loves a subtle touch of sweetness. We gobble down good tasting food without a second thought. But if we are to believe an extensive body of recent evidence showing that processed sugar in our diet promotes toxicity and has detrimental long-term health effects, then it may be prudent to pay attention. All foods have natural trace amounts of sugars. So if food can’t stand on its own without the added sweetness, then the results may eventually turn slightly sour.
In the ideal world, we’d see a revolution in Thailand with the elimination of sugar as a key ingredient. But given that won’t happen anytime soon, the Thai’s will stay double sweet.
It’s not so hard to eat all natural. All you’ve got to do is shop exclusively at your local green market, eat 100% certified organic, or grow what you eat. Right. Who’s got time for that? For an increasing number of people, eating all natural is slowly becoming more of a challenge.
A couple of the large food makers have given in to taking the words ‘all natural’ off certain product packaging. Their incentive was not to come clean, rather of growing litigation claims. You could argue that chemicals and synthetic materials (ingredients) are natural (of nature) and you may not be wrong. Pigs lips and are all natural. Hormones are all natural. Lot’s of things we would not eat by themselves are all natural. The definition for food companies is not a tight interpretation. We’ve all seen the ingredient natural flavoring. Why not simply list the natural flavor? If the ingredient sounded healthy, appetizing, or natural, they’d print the ingredient. Since it’s not, it’s more convenient to toss it into the sloppy, wide-mouth natural bucket.
While the debate over what is ‘all natural’ could be argued, (i.e., heating or processing minerals or plants changes the molecular structure, does that make it natural?), genetically modified foods (gmo’s), are hardly debatable. Genetically modified is not about cross-breading or cross-pollination, which we’ve been doing for thousands of years. GMO’s are the result of combining genes (DNA) from two distinct organisms — something that would not be possible naturally. When we pull a gene from a jellyfish and make it part of a vegetable, it’s no longer of nature.
To save Hawaii’s papaya industry, rather than let nature takes its course, we decided to allow the papaya it to be genetically altered. Most of the corn and soybeans in the U.S. (and distributed around the world) is genetically modified. That means by-products of corn and soybean are genetically modified, like canola oil, soy bean oil, hfcs, corn starch, maltodextrin, etc. etc. The number of foods using by-products of GMO corn and soybean is immense.
GMO foods are recent enough that it’s impossible to say whether they are harmful. We’d need the results from independent long-term studies. Anyone proclaiming one way or another whether GMO is healthy or not is giving an opinion, not stating fact. What is fact is that GMO food is not all natural. They’ve been rigged, by an intelligent form of nature.
It’s kind of late for a revolt against GMO foods, unless we make a concerted effort to grow our own or eat organic. In the end, it may not matter so much. We ingest lots of things that are not natural, vehicle exhaust, radiation, and acid rain. All is not so natural, we just do our best living with it naturally.