The great sugar debate

Mar 16, 2014   //   by Nicholas Milton   //   Blog  //  No Comments

I’m currently taking a course at Stratford College on writing for newspapers and magazines. Each pupil was asked to write a feature on a specialist subject. This is the Great sugar debate by Abi MacFarlane.

Sugar is now public enemy number one. A number of years ago fat hit the headlines as the source of all evil and soon after eggs were in the firing line. Only 2 a week the guidelines screamed out unless you want high cholesterol and ultimately a heart attack of course whilst on 40mg of statins, the wonder drug. Dame Sally Davies (the chief medical officer) now wants a tax on sugar and whilst too much of the white stuff has been linked to diabetes, heart disease and increased tooth decay taxation is a lazy way of attempting to solve what is a much more complex problem. Proposed Taxation will be at 20% taking a Mars bar from 60p to 72p and a can of coke from 65p to 78p. And Davies has said that higher taxes is an effective way to control the consumption of these products. If only this was true.

Everyone knows that coke and sweets are bad for you but despite a steady rise in price confectionary consumption has increased at an alarming rate. Lifestyle and habit influence our food choices much more than price. In the popular novel “Why French Women don’t get Fat” Mireille Guiliano stated the change from family mealtimes to snacks on the go as a the numbers one issue where weight was concerned. Britain is becoming more like America and eating snacks whilst walking, driving and at the work desk is the norm. Not only do snacks tend to be higher in both fat and sugar but also by not eating ‘mindfully’ (the buzz word of the moment) people will tend to consume more calories. 42% of office workers put on a stone within a year of being in the office.

People leading busy, yet sedentary lifestyles, will skip breakfast and substitute this for a calorie laden coffee on the way to work. Starbucks Caramel Frappacino has 11tsp of sugar in one cup. Workers are then expected to spend more time at their desks and will often snack at there. The French will often take a 2 hour lunch break whilst in the UK the lunch break will average at 29 mins, barely leaving time for a prepacked sandwich. In this current climate workers stay late in the office and have fast food or ready meals for their dinner. A taxation on sugar would change none of the above. The press often concentrate on the low income families to highlight the problems with the modern diet but this again skirts around the issues. Middle income families will unwittingly feed their children in a unhealthy way. With ‘tiger parents’ now prowling around Middle England, parents are spending so much time feeding their child’s intellect that there is now no time for family meals. David Cameron has suggested that family mealtimes should be an official measure of national happiness. I know parents whose children do 2 clubs on the same evenings and further clubs throughout the week. They don’t have the time to sit down to a family meal and will often feed their children in the back of the car. I find it astounding that a parent rates Korean and Kumin Maths above family time and nutrition.

When my children were younger I used to take them to a dance class. This class was 45 minutes

long and consisted of them dancing to different popular songs. Most parents in the class fed their

children between songs and some children sat out and had a picnic at the side of the room. With

each class averaging 10 songs this was 10 snacks their child had within a 45 minute period and

this was not a mealtime. How many parents shout that their offspring are fussy eaters and that

they don’t eat their meals but this is not surprising when they are fed throughout the day.

Most of these parents were satisfied that they are feeding their children healthy snacks with raisins

and cartons of fruit juice high on the agenda and with the emergence of ‘Fruit Flakes’ and ‘School

Bars’ by Fruit Bowl middle class parents are a marketers dream. Current guidelines issued by the

World Health Organisation state that 10tsp of sugar a day is an acceptable amount but recently

have said that they want to slash this in half. With a Sunmaid Raisins snack pack holding 7tsps of

sugar and a carton of apple juice adding another 3tsps they are already over target and not a Mars

bar in sight.

We are now consuming 3 times the amount of sugar than our grandparents. Our palates have

become more used to a sweeter diets and manufacturers have kept up. Bread, cereal, biscuits

and crisps have all become sweeter as have food made at home. In the popular childrens’s books

“The Famous Five” and “Millie Molly Mandy” the characters famously left the house with bread and

butter and an apple for their lunch. Although all sugar, including the fructose found on fruit and

vegetables, will be treated in the same way by our bodies and apple contains a third of the sugar in

a carton of apple juice and is also made up of micronutrients, namely fibre, that slows down the

rate at which the sugar is absorbed into the blood stream. At under 50p for an apple why don’t we

see more children munching this humble fruit?

So what can we do to solve this problem. Tying a ribbon in our hair and echoing the kitchen

prowess of the 1950s is not an option. Education should be at the forefront of this campaign. Old

fashioned economics should be taught throughout school, with a concentration on basic skills,

budgeting and shopping. Parents and children should be taught to read food labels to enable them

to make informed decisions for their families. Too much information is given through statistics and

this is unhelpful to anyone trying to balance their diet. Unless you ate only ready meals how would

you know what percentage of sugar or fat you had eaten that day. Manufacturers need to make

food labelling mandatory and user friendly. Schools have a duty of care to their pupils and should

spend more time on overall health instead of intellectual health. Priorities need to change before

our health can. The taxation of sugar will help none of these problems.

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Nicholas Milton

I am a marketing and communication expert with over 20 years experience. Over this time I have campaigned on issues I feel passionately about - conservation, climate change, racial equality, land reform, rural poverty and most recently international development. I am also a successful freelance journalist and have been published in the Guardian, Times, Daily Telegraph and the Independent.

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