A few years ago, while working on a beverage innovation product, a client and I were discussing the growing flavored water industry.Â Expressing my love for the unsweetened lemon water I drank regularly while living in Spain, our client sighed and responded, “Yeah, it’s a great product, but it would never work in America.Â The American palette can’t handle unsweetened; you always have to have a little bit of sugar to carry the flavor along or else they won’t drink it.”Â Little did I realize that not only was this representative of the US’ unnatural love for sweets, but also indicative of a much greater issue going on in our society.
Over the last ten years, America has made an important confession; we’re fat.Â Obesity has officially become a recognized epidemic, replete with its own organizations, initiatives, pharmaceuticals, foods, even its own wildly successful reality TV show.Â Aside from its inevitable aesthetic challenges, we have finally begun to recognize the serious consequences of our manic food culture and inactive lifestyles.Â We are slowly, but surely, starting to see an active change in how people treat their bodies, particularly with a strong push in our youngest generation: revolutionizing the school lunch, vilifying soda, encouraging a life off the couch.Â There is hope for a brighter and fitter future- physically, at least.Â Intellectually, an eerily parallel epidemic is just beginning to surface.
Just as the American palette cannot bear the taste of non-sweet foods, our brains and appetite for news and information seem unable to process or stomach anything that hasn’t been coated in a fine sugary glaze.Â Tabloids are no longer a four letter word, but rather a precious source of valuable social currency; our most popular news outlet is delivered not by an accredited journalist, but rather by a trained performer (Sorry Jon, you’re great, but it’s true); news articles have gotten shorter, titles juicier, and pictures more aggressive and shocking, talking heads louder and more caricatured.Â Entertainment has become the defacto vehicle through which to reach the American Public.Â In our schools, learning out of a good old fashioned book is unspeakable, the teacher often being chided for not coming up with a more dynamic, engaging lesson plan (read: find a way to make a game of it, make it fun, make it entertaining, that’s the only way they’ll actually learn the material).Â Videos and articles rarely go viral for their nutritional content, but rather for their brief ability to make us laugh (I say rarely because if you have yet to see the video of Senator Savino’s recent assembly speech on marriage equality, stop reading this and go find it- although, she even manages to crack a joke or two during her passionate monologue knowing it will perk her audience up).
As a result, our ability to process, synthesize, and digest meaningful and often relevant content has atrophied, leaving us with a critical deficit.Â Our sugar levels are through the roof while our intellectual filtration system has simultaneously shutdown.Â Ladies and Gentlemen, we are now suffering from a nationwide epidemic of Cultural Diabetes.
Don’t believe me?Â Let me ask you this: what do you think the public was more upset by: the delay of Obama’s Speech on the plan for Afghanistan and the Infidels or the delay of Tiger Woods’ inevitable speech on his infidelity?Â Which do you think will garner more views?
Mary Poppins, arguably one of the greatest caretakers and guardians of well-being of all time, famously said (well, sung): “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in the most delightful way.”Â And right she was.Â But we’re talking medicine here.Â Bitter, unpleasant, but ultimately good for you medicine, which you take rarely, and only in fairly serious situations.Â So I guess the question here is- When did everything become so medicinal?Â The answer is, everything has not, is not, will not.Â Just like our recent health revolution, we must challenge ourselves to retrain our palette and recognize that the absence of sweet does not automatically equal bland or inedible.Â The absence of fun is not automatically suffering.Â You can read a well-written article without it being laden with sexy claims and sensational content.Â You can learn something without it being delivered through a punchline.Â You can do something without it being a game.Â In fact, the reduction of sugar here and there can be quite refreshing.Â Your focus changes, your energy levels balance, you can think more clearly- and the best part is, when you do indulge in a treat here or there, it tastes that much sweeter.
And now, in the spirit of journalistic integrity, a counterpoint:Â we are genetically predisposed to like sweet.Â It’s a survival mechanism.Â From a dietary perspective, we seek out sweet because glucose is the easiest form of energy to store and use, and frankly, our brain needs it.Â So couldn’t we expand that justification how we gather and store our information?Â Seems only fair, especially with my shaky metaphors running rampant.Â Well the answer is yes- but all in moderation.Â Our need for sweet was a trait developed when food was scarce and we actually had to (gasp) hunt for it.Â Now, as the food industry abounds, we don’t need to take in every gram of sugar that crosses our path.Â In fact, we need to practice restraint in our abundance of tempting choices, else we face the medical consequences.Â The same can be said for our intellectual nutrition.Â Just as food has become available almost to a fault, the proliferation of media has overwhelmed us with a flood of content that, ironically, makes us need a critical filter more than ever.Â And while sweet is a signal that is familiar and comforting, it all too often is a red-herring, leading us astray from a healthier, ultimately more satisfying option that we could have had if we just kept at it a little longer.
So, while the symptoms have begun to present (think back to your last dinner party conversation), is the country ready for this diagnosis?Â Or more importantly, are they ready to do something about it and change their ways?Â The timing is ideal- we’re in a great state of reflection, brought on by the economic crises, where we seem to be reevaluating just about everything.