Tuesday Reviews-Day: Year of No Sugar

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Have you ever picked up a book that you just wanted to love so very much but found yourself wanting to throw it across the room 50 pages in? That was me with today’s review book, Year of No Sugar by Eve Schaub.

Inspired by a lecture by Dr. Robert Lustig, Schaub proposed an experiment to her family: go 1 year with no added sugars (fructose in particular), just to see how hard it would be. She, her husband, and their two daughters went without things like table sugar, honey, molasses, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juices, and artificial sweeteners for one year (with notable exceptions) while Eve kept a blog about the experience.

Now, I’m certainly no champion of HFCS or artificial sweeteners, and we tend to cook a lot from scratch in our home on a daily basis not only out of my own preference but my desire to keep problematic ingredients at bay (as a preventative measure for my IBS). For that reason alone I expected to be able to feel a kinship with the author and cheer on their triumphs. Instead, I was irritated by her constant labeling of sugar as poison (thanks, in part, to Australian lawyer-turned-food-activist David Gillespie’s Sweet Poison), her healthier-than-thou hubris paired contrasted with the near-constant self-deprecation.

Case in point? About midway through the book, after a variety of head tilt-inducing gems (like being surprised at how difficult it was to go out to eat without angering the waitstaff), came this passage:

Remember when I was [at the] Mayo Clinic with my dad? One day we were eating lunch in the cafeteria when a rather heavyset couple sat down at the other end of our table. They had clearly gotten the “I’m trying to be good, or mostly good” meal; they each had purchased a large chef’s salad with a breadstick, and she had added to her tray a banana and a skim milk, while he had a large diet soda and a piece of pie for dessert. I couldn’t help but wonder to myself if they wouldn’t have been better off enjoying a meal with much more fat but much less sugar/fake sugar. I mean, sugar (or the chemically fake stuff) was int he salad dressing, the breakstick, the diet soda, and in the pie. It was freakin’ everywhere on their tray, and it was as if I–through some mutant power which might qualify me to be a comic book superhero–was the only one who could see it. I idly wondered if perhaps one of them suffered from one of the many variants of metabolic syndrome, and if so, if anyone would ever offer the suggestion that they might be healthier forgoing the salad with dressing in favor of the pot roast and mashed potatoes.

For someone who expressed concern over whether or not the no-sugar year would give her daughters a skewed opinion of food or create disordered eating patterns, she certainly seems to have no qualms about making armchair diagnoses and passing judgement on strangers. Would she have made the same assumptions if the couple had not been “rather heavyset”? Not only is it a) not hurting her what other people choose to eat and b) none of her business how other people choose to live their lives, she had no idea about why they made the choices they made but passed judgment on their plates as if she was some omniscient food and health guru. While only a small part of the story, it’s the small asides like this that give you insight into a person’s character, and tell you whether they are someone whose opinion you can value.

Before you think I found everything in the book distasteful, let me assure you there were some bright spots. The older daughter, Greta, kept her own journal throughout the Year of No Sugar, and excerpts from it are included in the book. Her simple, straight-forward take on the situation was a breath of fresh air and I’m more curious to know what else she thought of the experiment than anything else.

I’m also all for an increased awareness in what we eat and what’s in our food. After all, that’s one of the reasons I encourage people to cook for themselves, regardless of how “healthy” or not a recipe is on the surface, because I believe the more we cook and pay attention to the food we eat, the better choices we will start to make over time. That ability to choose and the knowledge it stems from (true information, not inflammatory exposition or hyperbole) is what gives us the tools to live better lives by our own making, not having them dictated for us.

So while I do applaud the Schaubs’ fortitude and commitment in their Year of No Sugar, I disagree with the fundamentals on which the experiment is based. Namely, that any one ingredient is the cause of all the world’s nutritional ills. Simply put, we don’t live or eat in a vacuum, and to label a single component as the devil is a witch-hunt out of context. And while I agree with the exceptions they made throughout the year (one special “normal” sugar dessert a month, each person having their own free pass item throughout the year), it contradicts the fervor with which she labels those ingredients a poison or toxin–if it’s truly that bad, why allow any exceptions? Because it’s not realistic compared to practicing moderation, but moderation doesn’t make for a compelling story.

One of the reasons we read memoirs is to learn from other’s experiences (and, I daresay, from other’s mistakes). The best kind of book is one that sparks an interest to know more, so I suppose on those grounds I can give Year of No Sugar high marks. After all, while I wasn’t so curious as to listen to the Lustig lecture that started it all, I did so a little more digging about him and found that he spent 2013 studying public health policy, the end goal being to get fructose regulated a la alcohol and tobacco. This fits in so very well with Schaub’s own account of what happened after their experiment ended. No only had her tastebuds changed (something she was surprised at–I guess she’s never known an ex-smoker who found the taste of cigarettes abhorrent after a while), but she seemed to have lost the ability to make decisions on what was “safe” or not. Bottom line: moderation took too much work compared to following someone else’s mandate.

What was that about making better choices?

A choice the author did make was to research alternative (but not artificial) sources of sweetness for baking. Citing many food trials that all began to taste like banana or dates, she eventually found out about dextrose (another type of sugar but one devoid of fructose’s perceived ills) and was able to bring many of their family favorites back to the table with this simple substitute (though you may have to order it online, dextrose isn’t carried in a lot of mainstream grocery stores). Here’s one of the family’s weekend staples that includes a bit of dextrose along with the sweetening power of bananas and coconut for a weekend breakfast treat.

Heresy Pancakse (with blueberries) | Image via EveSchaub.com
Heresy Pancakse (with blueberries) | Image via EveSchaub.com

Heresy Pancakes
by Eve Schaub, from Year of No Sugar

Pancakes are a BIG favortie in our house. We eat them pretty much every weekend, and if there are leftovers, I refrigerate them (or freeze them with a piece of wax or parchment paper between each one) so we can heat them in the toaster oven on a school morning during the week. Using banana and coconut is just one way of upping the sweetness, but you could try any number of different added-fruit combinations.

2 cups all-purpose flour (or 1 cup all-purpose flour & 1 cup whole-wheat flour)
2 tablespoons dextrose
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
8 tablespoons powdered buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted & slightly cooled
2 cups water
2 very ripe mashed bananas
4 tablespoons shredded unsweetened coconut
canola oil

Whisk together flour, dextrose, baking powder, baking soda, powdered buttermilk, and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together egg, melted and cooled butter, and water. Add to these wet ingredients the mashed banana and shredded coconut. Whisk the egg and butter mixture into the dry ingredients until mixture is just incorporated. Don’t overmix; a few lumps should remain.

Heat a skillet over medium heat and use small amount (1 tablespoon) of butter or canola oil to cook the cakes and add more as you go as needed. Use a 1/4 cup measure to scoop batter onto hot skillet. Cook until bubbles begin to appear and then flip pancakes, cooking until they are nice and golden brown.

Year of No Sugar is published by Sourcebooks, available April 8, 2014

I was provided a review copy of the Year of No Sugar by Eve Schaub for the purpose of review. No compensation was received for this post and all opinions are (obviously) my own.

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