National Dessert Day: How is dessert in America changing?

Americans are known to have a sweet tooth, but the way they celebrate National Dessert Day – or any dessert – is changing as they snack more frequently.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
White House Executive Pastry Chef, Susie Morrison, shows the dessert called "a stroll through the garden" that was served to the visiting Chinese president. Dessert is part of American food tradition but is changing.

October 14 is National Dessert Day, but how the nation actually celebrates dessert is changing, and it may not be all about Grandma's apple pie.

A fondness for dessert has a distinctive place in American tradition. Let's be honest – kids nationwide don't plot their "trick-or-treating" routes each Oct. 31 after deciding which neighbor could use a friendly visit.

Mass media in the US reflects the import attached to desserts of all kinds. One of the best-known episodes of "I Love Lucy" requires Lucille Ball to gorge on chocolates. Julia Roberts and Sally Fields have strong words for a homemade red velvet armadillo cake in the 1989 film "Steel Magnolias." When Steve Martin plays a long-suffering dad in the 1991 remake of "Father of the Bride," he marvels when the wedding cake quote comes in at $1,200. 

A movement toward healthier eating has been targeting the American love of dessert. Laura Schmidt, a professor of health policy at the University of California-San Francisco Medical School, helps direct a public health initiative called Sugar Science that urges Americans to eat less sugar, saying that doing so will keep them slimmer and healthier.

"The only major change in the diet that explains the obesity epidemic is this steep rise in added sugar consumption that started in the 1980s," she told The Washington Post.

But to claims that America's desserts – known for being sweeter than most – are a problem, Andy Briscoe, president of the Sugar Association founded by the US sugar industry, responded that consumption of the worst, processed sugars has declined in the last 40 years.

"Natural sugar in moderation can be part of a balanced, healthful diet and lifestyle — and has been safely used by our grandmothers and their grandmothers for decades," he said in a Sugar Association statement.

One part of American dessert life has declined in recent years – the after-dinner dessert. A study by the research firm NPD Group, which studies consumer trends in America, said that only 12 percent of Americans eat dessert with dinner, compared to 24 percent in 1986. The decline has occurred across all age groups, though the over-55 crowd enjoy more after-dinner desserts than do Millennials, USA Today reported. 

Analysts suggest that while nutrition is part of it, the changing American lifestyle is more significant. Fewer people are sitting down for any kind of food at dinnertime, with snacking and on-the-go eating becoming more prevalent. Dessert is just one more step in a dinnertime ritual many Americans are abandoning anyway. 

"Dessert adds to the effort of making a meal," Harry Balzer, chief food analyst at NPD told USA Today. "You have to prepare it and clean up, plus it adds to the cost of the meal. It's one more thing Americans are learning to do without."

No one is suggesting that Americans love desserts any less. The ice cream sandwich still made the NPD Group's list of 10 foods gaining popularity in this decade, Business Insider reported, and although they are snacking more, Americans can – and do – continue to graze on desserts. 

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