The scientific reasons why we eat dessert last

Why did humans start eating sweet things at the end of meals?

One factor could be our brain's primal urge to consume as many calories as possible. According to food scientist Steven Witherly, our appetite fades after we eat too much of the same type of food. A dessert course tricks our brain into wanting more food.

"As we eat the savory course, we rapidly reduce our hunger pangs and become full — the pleasure of the first course has passed (savory and hot). But as we indulge again with a new set of foods (sweet and cold), our appetite re-energizes — and we indulge in the pleasures of eating once again," Witherly writes in "Why Humans Like Junk Food."

Another factor is that our stomachs can only handle some decadent desserts after we've already eaten other food.

"When you are very hungry, high amounts of concentrated sugar, rapidly digested starches, or fatty acids can be tough to stomach. Fat is a very potent inhibitor of gastric emptying, allowing the sugar(s) in the dessert to pull water from the stomach in an effort to dilute the contents. A Krispy Kreme donut — or worse, an apple fritter — can actually cause gastric distress in some people — but not after a full meal," Witherly writes.

Witherly, who runs a food consulting firm, talked with us earlier this year about KFC's secret recipe and why it's so addictive.

Best desserts of Europe
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Best desserts of Europe

France: Croquembouche

A cone-shaped pile of choux pastry balls wrapped in threads of caramel. Typically served at weddings.

Photo: Getty

Luxembourg: Bretzel 

A large pretzel-shaped puff pastry commonly topped with almonds and icing in Luxembourg. During Lent, there is a festival called 'Pretzel Sunday' where men give their girlfriends pretzels to symbolize two lovers arm in arm.

Photo: Getty

Germany: Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest Cake)

Layers of chocolate sponge cake wedged between sheets of whipped cream and chopped cherries. It is decorated with more cherries, more whipped cream, and chocolate shavings.

Photo: Getty

Italy: Sfogliatelle

Shell shaped filled pastries filled with ricotta native to Italian cuisine, especially from Naples.

Photo: Getty

Sweden: Princess cake 

A dessert made with layers of pastry cream, sponge cake and whipped cream. It is traditionally topped with green marzipan.

Photo: Getty

Norway: Krumkake

Patterned waffle cookies made on a decorated, two-sided iron to give that luxurious texture. Krumkake is traditionally eaten after Christmas Eve dinner. It can be eaten plain or with whipped cream and fruit.

Photo: Getty

Switzerland: Vermicelles

Sweetened, puréed chestnut dessert piled on a meringue base and topped with whipped cream.

Photo: Getty

Portugal: Pasteis de Nata 

Sweet egg custard baked in puff pastry crusts.

Photo: Getty

Belgium: Liege waffle

Waffle made from a thick batter that resembles bread dough. Pearl sugar is mixed into the batter, which caramelizes as it cooks.

Photo: Getty

The Netherlands: Poffertjes

Tiny pancakes made of buckwheat and yeast that are baked in a cast iron pan. Typically served with butter and powered sugar.

Photo: Getty

Spain: Churros con chocolate caliente

Fried pastry dough in long prism shapes that can be dipped in thick hot chocolate or eaten on its own. Churros are typically eaten for breakfast in Spain, but you can find them around the clock.

Photo: Getty

Iceland: Pönnukökur

Crepes that are typically filled with whipped cream or yogurt and topped with fruit. Cherries are shown, but Icelandic people love their rhubarb jam.

Photo: Getty 

Greece: Koulourakia 

Butter-based biscuit that is typically served at Easter. It is hand-shaped and glazed with an egg wash. They are frequently topped with sesame seeds.

Photo: Getty

Ireland: Bread pudding

Warm and hearty, the bread pudding is steamed to achieve a custardy inside and crispy, crusty outside. 

Photo: Getty

Finland: Pulla

Sweet dessert bread spiced with crushed cardamon seeds and occasionally raisins. Eat with coffee!

Photo: Getty

United Kingdom: Eton Mess

Traditional English dessert consisting of pieces of meringue, cream, and strawberries. The sweet treat is named after Eton College, a secondary school that popularized the dish.

Photo: Shutterstock

Denmark: Aeblskiver

Round pancakes made of wheat flour. Batter is poured into little cast iron well pans and turned with a metal knitting needle. Traditionally cooked with apple slices inside, they are now served with jam.

Photo: Getty

Austria: Linzer torte 

A buttery, nut-flavored pastry base, topped with a thick layer of jam and a lattice crust. 

Photo: Getty


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