The Mitzva of saying a Bracha forces us to think about and categorize what we are eating. By doing so we not only enjoy it more by paying attention, but also reframe our eating as an act of divine service. By understanding eating as a part of the natural order (albeit with a uniquely human spin) it becomes more than a mere satisfaction of desires.
This categorization takes place on a number of planes both biological and cultural. The Bracha is determined by the interplay between the food’s source, its primary use and its form.
Let us take the example of sugar.
The Rambam mentions three opinions about the proper blessing for eating sugar, (according to our kids, eating it is an essential part of baking cookies). Most of the Geonim say that it is Boreh Pri Ha’adama, and a minority say it is Boreh Pri Ha’etz. The Rambam opposes this and says that it is Shehakol.
The sugarcane itself has the status of a tree in halacha, therefore Ha’etz is understandable. However, unlike most trees the cane itself is eaten rather than a fruit which grows on it. This raises a question, can the tree itself be the product of a tree? Does the “fruit of the tree” mean the primary use of the tree or only a growth which is separate from the tree? This leads to the debate among the Geonim, is the sugar “tree” a fruit of the tree or a fruit of the ground.
However the Rambam disputes the very basis of this argument since sugar is a substantial change from the natural form of the plant. There is a complex process of extracting and cooking the juice to produce sugar crystals. Even though this is the main purpose of growing these plants, the final product is so far removed that it can no longer be considered a fruit, rather it is a human product.
Practically we say Shehakol on sugar (sorry kids, sugar doesn’t count as a vegetable), but there is a lot of thought behind that decision. When we say this Bracha we are identifying it as an “artificial” sweetener rather than a “natural” one.
We can ask similar questions about other foods. For example, what Bracha should you say before eating chocolate?