Sweetness – What’s it all about?

Yesterday I bought sweetcorn which was described on the packet as “supersweet”. (Yes, it was in a plastic packet instead of its own natural protective covering – but I’ve done that rant before and, much as it irks me, it’s not the theme of today’s blog.)

I suppose one might expect sweetcorn by definition to be sweetish but why supersweet? Why are tomatoes, to take one example, routinely commended for their sweetness? Why this apparent obsession with describing vegetables and other savoury things in terms of sweetness? Is it a peculiarly British phenomenon? I suspect it is.

Ok, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth myself. I never take sugar in tea or coffee and I do like dark bitter chocolate and seriously hoppy beers. I don’t always bother with dessert but when I do, I expect something small and exquisite with tangy fruitiness or rich chocolate, coffee or nutty flavours, not bland sugariness. I put very little sugar in the puddings and ice creams I make and invariably find ready-made ones far too sweet for my liking. Fortunately, the other half of my household has similar tastes; I buy a small packet of light brown sugar maybe twice a year.

It seems to be a generational thing to some extent. In one sense it is obviously so, insofar as children like sweet things but their palates become more sophisticated as they get older, but there seems to be a longer term trend here too – I’m fairly sure my generation is generally less sweet-toothed than my parents’. A few years ago, I used to take a minibus load of old people on a fortnightly shopping trip and was astounded at the enormous amounts of sugar (and milk) they bought. It’s arguably a class thing as well, but I’d better not go there.

To get back to the point, what is this sweetness-as-a-criterion thing all about? Do people really rate carrots by their sugar content? And is it even a virtue in fruit? I’ve recently seen “supersweet” blackberries. I didn’t buy them. I wouldn’t dream of buying big cultivated blackberries, supersweet or otherwise. Indeed, I remember as a young man newly-arrived in London being shocked to see blackberries on a greengrocer’s stall – blackberries were wild fruit that one picked in the hedgerows (and they were small and deliciously tart), it had simply never occurred to me that people might actually buy them! As for what a certain company does with 90% of the British blackcurrant crop, it makes me weep. If the Good Lord had intended blackcurrant juice to be adulterated with tons of sugar, He’d have made them that way.

Is sweetness just a marketing buzzword or does it go deeper than that.? Is it a symbol of prosperity and the craving for it a reaction to years of deprivation and austerity? There are examples of sweetness being used as a metaphor for good times in the Old Testament (e.g. a land flowing with milk and honey), although fat, oil and corn are used similarly. (My favourite among Solomon’s chat-up lines is “Thy belly is like an heap of wheat.”) But we’re not recovering from famine; most of us in this country are well fed and have no obvious biological need for excess sugar.

It occurs to me that sugar, like salt, can mask the absence of more subtle and interesting flavours. Sugar and salt are cheap. Blandness is easier to create than flavours that entice and challenge the palate. Is that what people really want or have become conditioned to?

Is the whole sweetness thing a marketing ploy that we could well do without? Or am I a lone voice crying in a saccharin wilderness?