Someone who greatly enjoys sweet foods is said to have a “sweet tooth.” Many people around the world are fond of sweets, from sugar-packed ripe fruit to chocolates, and some people associate sweet foods specifically with comfort and well being. Several factors appear to come together to create a sweet tooth: humans are predisposed to like sweet foods for a variety of reasons, some humans have even stronger sweet-liking genes, and others are conditioned to like sweets. Having a sweet tooth isn't necessarily a bad thing, although overconsumption of sweet foods can lead to health problems.
The term dates to around the 1300s, when people used it to describe someone with a liking for delicacies in general, sweet or not. Over time, the phrase was specifically used to refer to sweet delicacies, thanks to the introduction of refined sugar which occurred when people began to explore the tropics of Asia. Today, the term is also used to refer to someone who is experiencing a craving for sweets.
It is believed that humans have been enjoying sweets for a long time. In Africa, a wide assortment of fruits are available to choose from, but fully ripened fruits have the most nutritional value. Ripe fruit is also much sweeter than unripe fruit, so humans probably learned at an early stage of evolution that they should seek out sweet foods; although most humans no longer forage for their diet, this ancient genetic lesson encourages modern humans to seek out and enjoy sweets.
Studies conducted by several universities around the world also show that some people have a strong genetic predilection for sweets. In other words, although all humans are hardwired to some extent to enjoy sweets, some sweet teeth are stronger than others. Many of these scientific examinations of the sweet tooth used twin studies, in which researchers compared the sweet teeth of fraternal and identical twins to learn more about the role of genetics in a preference for sweets.
Researchers have also shown that a sweet tooth can be a learned trait. Many parents, for example, reward their children with sweets, building positive associations with sweet treats in the minds of their children. Emotional eating also often has a strong sweet tooth component, perhaps because so many people associate sweets like cookies, cakes, chocolates, and sweet drinks with a sense of comfort.
Sweet foods tend to have a high caloric value, which is part of the reason why early humans sought them out. Many modern humans already have their dietary needs met, so the consumption of sweet foods can lead to an overconsumption of calories and weight gain as a result. For this reason, many people try to curb their sweet teeth to keep their weights stable.