My love affair with spice began a new and sizzling chapter when I visited Mexico for New Year’s Eve. However, I cannot deny my feelings for another element of food that hit me hard in the country. Although I stayed faithful to my exploration of all foods spicy, sweet things caught my eye countless times as I passed them on street corners – their candied perfumes teasing me gleefully and their bare exteriors flirting with my ogling eyes. My inability to turn my head from eye candy of sugary treats gave me the first granule of realization that just maybe love need not be restricted to a monogamy of one food favorite. The incessant palpitations of my heart when I was met with the sight of horchata, tamarind candies, Abuelita chocolate caliente, mango Jumex juice, and – my guilty favorite – bulging sweet-filled churros informed me that the sweets of Mexico also had earned my tender affection. My love for Mexican food culture flowed heavy like a filled fountain of caramel. Spice had me sweating sweet bullets of burning bliss, for which sugar cooled to a diabetic coma of sheer ecstasy.
On my freshly fried and lechera-overflowing second churro into the trip, I bit into my indulgent euphoria to an unexpected taste. Rather than the hot heaven that overwhelmed me on my first day in the country, I was struck only with the realization of how very quickly addiction to sugar has the potential to take hold of one’s heart. Sugar acts like a potent drug, rewiring our neural rewards pathways upon repeated excessive consumption to condition us to crave more and more to experience our sweet sugar highs. In Mexico, this manifests in the fact of diabetes as the country’s leading killer and in an obesity burden higher than any other Latin American country. But is the country to blame for skyrocketing levels of non-communicable diseases (NCD’s)? We need look no further than the parallel trends of obesity in America to see that the answer is a glaring “definitivamente no”. Mexico has followed the lead of the states in its growing waistline, largely because we have been shamelessly exporting obesity to our border brother.
Since the initiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1970, the U.S. has sent south massive quantities of corn, refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and factory-farmed products – ingredients that fuel the creation of cheap, processed, and addictive foods. In contrast, the U.S. has threatened to place high duties on Mexican sugar exported to the U.S., and the price of Mexico's wider variety of indigenous, nutritionally-varied crops remain comparatively high for national consumption. The ubiquity of monopoly crops are coupled with the drive of U.S.-brand fast-food chains for profit-driven globalization to Mexico. In short, America has spread its Western diet like wildfire to cause NCD’s in a manner akin to the propensity of our original settlers to wipe out Native American populations with infectious diseases. America has been a leading driver of Mexico’s poorly-paced epidemiological transition to the point at which obesity may commonly coexist with micronutrient deficiency in a condition commonly referred to as hidden hunger. High calorie consumption is undeniably evident by the ubiquity of cheap sweets, but dietary diversity for healthy growth and development may be continuously lacking.
Thus, as I sat under the sweet sun with my second and final fateful street churro that oozed stickiness onto my hands, my love for the confectionery treat began to sour. I bit into the bitter side of sugar, realizing that some sweets may not be a part of Mexican food culture at all, but rather a symptom of its bullying by its powerful border state. It is no wonder that American-led individual behavior-change public health messaging may be ineffective in these circumstances. We must instead take personal responsibility for our role in global obesity trends by improving the altruism in our agricultural policies and food-sector business practices as a means to affect positive nutritional change. Only then can the sweet side of moderate sugar consumption be tasted once again.