Killer sweet tooth

The guy at the coffee shop pushed the tiny paper cup across the counter.

“You should try this,” he said, nodding at the Lilliputian confectionary inside.

“What is it?” I asked, eying the combination of pink icing, gooey chocolate and white sprinkles.

The barista laughed at my distrust.

“It’s cake. Don’t worry, it’s not poison!”

Ah, but it is—or so says emerging theories about the power of sugar and its impact on our bodies and overall health.

Earlier this year, The New York Times published a lengthy article on the subject. Gary Taubes’ “Is Sugar Toxic?” triggered by the YouTube popularity of Robert Lustig’s 2009 lecture “Sugar: The Bitter Truth.”

The article is complex but its premise simple: Processed sugar—the white, grainy stuff; high-fructose corn syrup; et al.—can kill you.

Science, Taubes argues, not only links excessive consumption of sugar to a rise in the number of obese and diabetic Americans, it’s also the culprit for numerous other chronic ailments, including heart disease and hypertension.

If only it didn’t taste so damn good.

I have few vices left in my life. I gave up smoking long ago and drink in moderation. I eat a lot of fresh vegetables and fruit and try to exercise regularly. I am very particular about getting enough sleep.

Too bad I have a killer sweet tooth.

We’re not just talking chocolate here. I love nearly anything sweet: Hard candy, licorice, cupcakes, cookies and ice cream.

Sugar. Sugar. Sugar.

But a sugar craving temporarily satiated is just that—temporary—and too often a sugar high leads to a bummer of a low marked by sluggishness and headaches.

Still, it seems nearly impossible to avoid the sweet stuff. Sugar sneaks into our diets in so many insidious ways.

There’s been much controversy in recent years about health risks associated with high-fructose corn syrup—the industry’s cheap sweetener of choice when it comes to processed foods—but unless you’re picking your food directly off the vine, tree or bush, chances are it’s been infused with similarly suspect ingredients.

Glucose, dextrose, maltose, xylose, galactose, pentose, hexitol, sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol. The list goes on and on and on.

I’ve tried cutting back before, but always without much luck. Often, I turned to sugar-free substitutes, but science suggests that could be worse—the mere suggestion of sugar tricks your taste buds into wanting more.

Even my go-to substitute—Diet Coke—is likely bad for me.

At a recent American Diabetes Association conference, two San Antonio-based doctors presented evidence linking diet sodas to weight gain.

“Diet soft drink users, as a group, experienced 70 percent greater increases in waist circumference compared with non-users,” the doctors reported. “Frequent users, who said they consumed two or more diet sodas a day, experienced waist circumference increases that were 500 percent greater than those of non-users.”

Bye-bye, Diet Coke.

I’ve pulled the red-and-white cans from my fridge, but I don’t intend to give up sugar permanently—a life without truffles, brownies and mint-chocolate-chip ice cream is not an existence I care to know.

Still, it seems a retraining of taste buds is in order.

I couldn’t resist the first time the barista pushed the cake sample on me, and although it was just one bite, the effect was immediate: A rush of sugar seemed to literally flow through my veins.

I didn’t say no the next time, either. On the third morning, however, I contemplated visiting a different cafe, but finally approached the counter, ordered my coffee (black, no room for cream or sugar) and politely declined the free sample.

Sugar, in its purest form—ripe strawberries, crisp apples, tart blackberries—isn’t bad. But although I still believe in the all-American goodness of birthday cake and brain-numbingly cold ice cream on a hot summer day, less really is more.