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Many restaurants are ditching sugary dessert items for food such as a green strawberry sorbet. (Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)
Many restaurants are ditching sugary dessert items for food such as a green strawberry sorbet. (Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)

Going against the grain: Sugar is out, bitter is in Add to ...

By his third day in town, my father had emptied our sugar bowl. He eats the stuff by the heaping tablespoonful: three in his coffee, three (or more) on his cereal and far, far more high-fructose corn syrup than I can quantify in the Cokes that he mixes with his evening rum.

I let it ride at first. At 84, he is by most measures preposterously healthy. Every time I heard the crack of another Coke can or the clanging trawl of the sugar spoon around his coffee mug, I thought of the geriatric smokers who live into their 90s, stained-flesh-and-nicotine-blooded rebukes to all the clean-living marathoners who drop dead at 61.

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Yet, I also thought of what might happen next year or the one after that: how, every day, my father’s sweet tooth increased his risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and liver damage. The evidence is so damning that the World Health Organization recommended an ideal consumption of no more than 100 calories in added sugars daily. Between his cereal and his coffee, my father consumed three times that by 10 a.m. every day.

I had a second issue with all the added sugar he was eating. Unlike sour, spicy, bitter and umami, workaday sweetness is the dullard of the flavour family. It’s white and cheap and one-note once the empty high has subsided. My father, I liked to think, was better than that.

By the third day, I started haranguing him. The next morning, he didn’t ask for sugar with his coffee. Instead of the sound of that spoon in his mug, I heard a tentative sip, a contemplative pause, followed by a howl of shock and disgust. It isn’t always easy, getting with the times.

It might have started in the world of cocktails. Fifteen years ago, cosmos, appletinis and sickly saccharine Goldschlager shots were go-to orders. Today, you’d be hard to find them outside of TGI Friday’s. Refreshingly bitter and sour cocktails, such as negronis and French 75s, have taken over. (Sales of Campari, the bitter herbal liqueur that’s the basis of the negroni, climbed 20 per cent in the U.S. last year.)

Or maybe it began with the rise of New Nordic cooking, with its unsweetened creams, its cinnamon pastries that taste like cinnamon instead of sugar and its embrace of sea buckthorn, a bright orange fruit that’s nearly sour enough to peel nail polish.

It could also be the pendulum at work: Where sticky toffee pudding and molten chocolate cakes once dominated Canada’s better dessert menus, I now see green strawberry sorbets, celery panna cotta and bracing sours from citrus, tamarind, green mango and pomegranate. Even citric acid, the coarse white powder that gives Sour Keys their puckery character, has become a go-to ingredient.

There’s plenty enough cloying sweetness to go around still, but our collective sugar high may be ebbing.

At Per Se restaurant in New York in the spring, the 10-course dessert tasting menu I ate was notable as much for its restraint and lack of cloying sweetness as for its deliciousness. One of the courses included a lime leaf ice, as well as celery leaves and tiny cubes of jellied ginger. Another played sour-sweet pineapple off semi-sweet mochi, the Japanese glutinous rice cake. It included green tea, sesame and puffed black rice that tasted eerily of popcorn, too.

What was all-out sweet – and there wasn’t much of it – was always balanced by another flavour: the steamed pudding by lemon confit, the pear sorbet by sour green apples. Even better, I didn’t feel comatose after all that overindulgence. I felt pretty excellent, in fact.

Chocolate has also changed. These days, it’s often dark chocolate, complex and fruity-floral with aggressive bitter notes – it’s chocolate that tastes like cocoa beans, instead of sugar and vanilla. (Sales of dark chocolate, which has a higher cocoa content and less sugar than the usual stuff, have surged in the past five years. According to the U.S. National Confectioners’ Association, they climbed 9 per cent in 2013 alone.)

Many savoury foods have also become less sweet. Teriyaki salmon has given way to salmon grilled with butter or olive oil and a bit of salt; food tastes more like good ingredients these days, rather than the lowest-common-denominator sauces we used to cloak them with.

With the rise of Neapolitan pizza, North Americans have discovered that tomato sauce doesn’t need to be loaded with sugar to taste incredible. (The addition of sugar is forbidden with proper Neapolitan pizza sauce.)

Rapini, endives, dandelion and chicory have begun to colonize the vegetable aisle; this fall, the brilliant Toronto- and Paris-based food writer Jennifer McLagan will publish her cookbook Bitter, with recipes for the likes of radicchio pie, turnip ice cream and white asparagus with blood orange sauce.

McLagan has even begun to make her own tonic water, she said; gin and tonic is her favourite drink. She uses far less sugar than even high-quality commercial preparations. The result: you can taste the notes of citrus zest, lemongrass, star anise and cinchona bark in the gin instead of only sugar. “Bitter is so much more interesting than sweet, because it’s so complex,” McLagan said.

It’s hard to say whether it’s the beginning of a widespread movement or just a passing (if hopeful) fad.

McDonald’s still believes that children can’t possibly eat an apple without a packet of caramel sauce to dip it into. Krave, the chocolate cereal from Kellogg’s, contains 11 grams of added sugar per dubiously tiny 3/4 cup serving (nobody eats a 3/4 cup serving of cereal); that’s nearly the entire daily recommended sugar intake for young children, which one presumes is the brand’s target group. Most depressingly, for me at least, the desserts arm of Momofuku, one of the world’s most influential (and, to my mind, best) restaurant companies, has found enormous success by producing some of the most oversweetened desserts I’ve ever tried.

Still, I am hopeful. My father hasn’t entirely killed off his sweet tooth, and he’s still a ways off from embracing trendy bitters, such as rapini or spice. But these days, instead of adding three spoonfuls of sugar to his coffee, he stirs in a single one of honey. He doesn’t even howl about it any more.

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