The mammoth sugar reflex

by Gautam Raja

When humans immerse their faces in water, their heart rates decrease. The colder the water, the more pronounced the effect, and the longer they can remain without breathing. It’s called the Mammalian Diving Reflex and is an evolutionary remnant of a distant past.

When confronted with a confection that goes by the name Chocolate Wipeout Cake, humans exhibit a slightly better-known reaction called the Mammoth Sugar Reflex. Forget putting your face in it; just the sight of one of these cakes is enough to cause a slew of reactions, and a lower heart rate certainly isn’t one of them.

These days, when somebody creates a confection they intend to sell, they don’t stop at making it look delicious. Instead, they find ways to make it downright evil. It isn’t enough that the Chocolate Wipeout Cake has dark chocolate sponge interlayered with darker chocolate cream and covered with darkest chocolate icing. That would be merely delicious. To make it evil, the creator did all that and then took a whole bag of Hershey’s Kisses and densely studded every outer surface.

Instruments of torture such as these are on display everywhere. Whipped cream, beaten chocolate, bruised berries, mashed fruit, crushed nuts and broken promises aren’t painful enough; oh no, they throw in enigmatic variations too. A choice of everything from golden apple crumble cheesecake to French-poodle flavoured ice cream drives even the most avowed sugar-teetotaller to dessert.

Simply looking at these towering calorie infernos significantly increases the risk of premature death. And most people misoverestimate themselves, fondly believing that there is such a thing as a “quick taste”. People who can stop at that “quick taste” are also able to bend spoons using their minds. The rest of us—weak of will, weaker of heart—end up doing our spoon-bending by loading them repeatedly with chocolate-heavy mouthfuls. And since just one spoonful demands over 400 miles of sweaty repentance in a gym, it’s easy to think: “Oh well, I’ve stepped off the cliff now, I might as well plummet to the ground”.

Nature has bequeathed us many wonderful things: opposable thumbs, large cerebral lobes, ear holes that magically match our iPod earphones… Surely she could have come up with a better way for us to process our food? Something like, say, sleep that burns 700 calories an hour. Then we’d be forced to eat a Chocolate Wipeout Cake every night to stay alive. Or she could have gently programmed us to love lettuce and hate chocolate. She could have set it up so that we lie awake at night and say, “Oh, I’m just dying for a bowl of lettuce.” We would walk slowly past a vegetable shop and stare longingly through the window and say, “Should I? No, I mustn’t. Oh but I want to. Okay, I’ll just take a closer look.”

And we go in and sneak a glance at a beautiful Romaine Wipeout and think, “Oh I can’t resist!” And we give in to our terrible, insatiable greed, and run home with the greens to gobble our way through them, too hurried in sin to bother with dressing.

But life is astoundingly unfair. Though they come up with more and more ways to compress 40,000 calories into a bowl, our bodies still let every one of those units walk in unchallenged, find a spouse, buy a house and start a promised new life on our hips and bellies. Nature is in no hurry to replace our Stone Age hunter-gatherer body processes just yet, so don’t hold your breath. Not even with your face in a bowl of ice-cold water.

First published in Gulf News, April 8, 2008