MANILA, Philippines ? The old English word for ?sweet? meant ?pleasing to the senses.? All over the world, people do like sweets; but in some places, notably the Philippines, people seem to go overboard, almost to the point of a mania, with their desire for sweets.
Even visitors from neighboring Asian countries sometimes complain about how excessively sweet our foods are, especially desserts. I can imagine some readers going, ?But aren?t desserts supposed to be sweet?? After all, matamis in the vernacular translates to both ?sweet? and ?dessert,? and although we do have a few desserts that aren?t sweet, the most popular ones are usually smothered in sugar and syrup.
Our sweet tooth goes beyond desserts. We put sugar in our drinks: fruit juices (even mango, which is already sweet), chocolate, milk, coffee. (Like the Vietnamese, we also like condensed milk, which is full of unhealthy sugar, and which we then mix into coffee.) Even our choice of wines reflects that sweet tooth?we reject fine dry wines and go for sweet ones... including those popular strawberry wines.
Our Asian neighbors do use sugar, but often in combination with other spices to create new blends with a more nuanced sweetness. With Filipino dishes, the sugar blasts you into outer space.
Is the sweet tooth in our genes?
There is something called ?nutrigenomics,? which investigates possible genetic foundations for nutrition, from food preferences to the way we process the foods in our bodies. And yes, a team at the University of Toronto has been looking into the sweet tooth and has found that there are indeed people who have a genetic variation that impairs the ability of their brains to detect changes in the level of sugar in their blood. This means they just can?t seem to get enough of sweetness. The study did not look into ethnicity, and since we don?t have nutrigenomics in the country yet, we won?t know if that genetic variation is found in Filipinos.
Language might give us some clues as to where our sweet tooth comes from. ?Matamis? (with similar terms in other Philippine languages) does not seem to have been borrowed from outside. In contrast, our word for sugar derived from cane, ?asukal,? which comes from the Spanish ?azucar,? that in turn is derived from the Arabic ?shakar.?
Cane is a plant belonging to the grass family, originating in Asia but which didn?t seem to be important to Filipinos in the pre-colonial and early Spanish colonial period. I couldn?t find historical accounts of how we sweetened our food, if we did at all, but I?ve wondered if perhaps the variety of sweet fruits that we did have (mangos, atis, star apple) might have started us on our mania for sweetness. Among our Asian neighbors, palm sugar is used in many daily dishes, in pad thai (Thai fried noodles) for example, but locally, panocha is rarely used. Note, though, that we do process coconuts (which belongs to the palm family) into sweet desserts. Honey, too, is used among many of our indigenous people, and the terms are local.
Cane was probably too impractical to process into sugar for daily use, until the 19th century when Nicolas Loney brought in machines to process sugar. That started the sugar plantation economy in Negros Island and successfully captured part of the growing market for sugar in Europe and America.
Local consumption was probably initially limited to the upper class. Many of our sugar-based desserts have Spanish names, suggesting that these pastries were developed in the context of Spanish colonial tastes. Drool now as you think of sans rival (without rival), leche flan, pastillas de leche.
Think, too, of cakes which came in with the Americans and which retain their English names. Note that all these pastries and cakes are luxuries, a special treat, for poorer families and limited to birthdays, if at all. In many rural areas, you?re not going to find these pastries, which seem to be associated with urbanism.
The lavish sweets associated with the upper class made sugar a status symbol so when the mass production of cane sugar made it cheaper and affordable, most Filipinos immediately latched on.
Yes, I do think it?s culture rather than genes that?s behind our sweet tooth, mainly because I see a slow but clear decline in our taste for sugar. Knowledge about the dangers of high sugar consumption seems to be increasing. For some years now, at family reunions and parties, I?ve been hearing people react to desserts with complaints like, ?Ay, ang tamis naman (it?s too sweet).? Even more significantly, my favorite aunts, who were always trying to stuff me with sans rival and yemas, now offer me cakes, ?Here, Mike, this is really good cake... not sweet at all.?
The changes seem to be among the upper classes right now, but if sugar consumption spread because it was a high status symbol, we just might see people avoiding sugar and sweet foods again as a way of imitating the rich.