Are we helpless against 'Coca Cola' climate?
Everywhere we go, we're assaulted by processed crap and food-like substances pumped with sugar. Are we reaching a tipping point? asks Brendan O'Connor
Published 23/08/2015 | 02:30
One glass of wine a day can give you breast cancer. Sitting down is as dangerous as smoking. It turns out that carbs are good and the Paleo diet is wrong. But it turns out fats are good too. Working long hours causes a stroke. I'm guessing you've had enough health-scare pieces in the past week. There's even a danger at this stage that we're going to start ignoring it all. After all, it's nanny stateism and health fascism and these scientists and doctors change their minds all the time anyway about what's good for us and bad for us, don't they? And what's the point in living to be 100 if you're miserable and eating twigs and seeds?
But the one health scare that just won't go away right now is sugar. Concern about sugar, much like sugar itself, is everywhere these days. You would imagine that the whole thing is nearing a tipping point now. And you wonder if Jamie Oliver could be that tipping point. Earlier this year, Oliver started charging a "tax" on the sugary drinks he sells in his restaurants, the proceeds of which will go to educating kids about healthy eating. You could argue that it would be less hypocritical for him not to sell the drinks at all. You could argue it's just as cynical as Tesco's pledge to reduce the amount of sugar in their own brand fizzy drinks by 5pc. But let's give him and Tesco the benefit of the doubt. At least they are doing something.
Now, in the run-up to his new book and series Jamie's Super Food, Oliver is indicating that healthy eating for kids, and sugar intake in particular, is going to be his next big campaign. And Oliver's campaigns tend to have impact. Oliver could become the face for the increasing clamour about sugar, could become its tipping point in the UK and Ireland.
Please don't stop reading. This is not going to be some kind of preachy article. I love sugar. I absolutely adore it. Like most of us, I'm addicted to it. I like it in classy forms, like in nice desserts and posh chocolate. And I like it in cheap and nasty sweets that are colours that don't appear in nature. My kids are mad for sugar. Sweets are currency for kids. Any deal you do with them generally involves sweets. I will admit to being a modern right-on parent in one sense, however. We don't really have fizzy drinks in our house. Once in a blue moon, on holidays maybe, I'll let the older one share a Coke or a Fanta with me. She'll go a little bit doolally for a while, and she'll then admit, in a very small voice, that it doesn't really suit her. Or she may come back from a party, vaguely tearful, and I won't ask but I will know that there was drink and regret involved. I'm pretty much up for whatever buzz is going, but fizzy drinks and gambling are two things I don't see the upside of.
I have become more aware of sugar recently, probably through doing the Taylor Made diet, which was based on a low GL model. Managing your Glycaemic Load seems to be, roughly speaking, about curtailing sugar spikes and thus the corresponding dips that send one in search of more sugar. And it reset me for a while. You feel great when you get off the sugar rollercoaster, but it's very easy to slip back onto it. I think the best I can hope for is to try and stay reasonably virtuous during the week and then go a little crazy at the weekend.
One of the main reasons it is hard to stay virtuous on the sugar front is not really down to willpower. It's probably more to do with environment. It is really only when you have had your eyes opened to the whole sugar thing that you see how difficult it is to avoid. Walk into any supermarket and you are assaulted by processed foods in garish-coloured packaging, all of it, the sweet and the savoury, pumped up with sugar. Even the allegedly healthy food aimed at kids - cereals and yogurts - are full of it. You can even tend to get a bit snobby at times, looking with distaste at trolleys full of brightly coloured packaging, full of food-like substances, much of it with no nutritional value whatsoever.
Of course, the 's' word had to come up. There are those who will tell you that snobbery is at the heart of all this. Apparently it's easy for me: a comfortable, educated, middle-class person to pooh-pooh the food choices other people make, because I can afford to make different choices. But the reality is that processed shit isn't always cheap. While it's true that when you walk into a supermarket you are bombarded with special offers for chocolate and crisps and soft drinks, you will also find pretty good deals on fruit and veg and meat. And in my experience, you eat a lot less of them and get a lot more out of them than you do out of the processed sugary food-like substances. Real food nourishes you and satisfies you. Whereas sugar, as William Leith, one of the pioneers in this area, noted many years ago in his seminal book The Hungry Years, is the perfect product for the consumer age in that the more you consume the more you want, so it defies the laws of supply and demand.
It is also condescending to suggest that the working classes are, in some way, more susceptible to the sugary environment we all live in. In fact, we are all pretty powerless over it. Everywhere you go, there is crap. In the workplace, at the cinema, in schools, at the airport, everywhere. A deluge of it. Willpower and choice barely come into it. It's practically impossible to avoid. And even if you avoid it the first 10 times in the day, you eventually use up your reserves of willpower.
Of course, we are told that limiting the amount of sugar everywhere is nanny state-ism at its worst. We are told also that it is not what we eat that is making us and our children obese, but a lack of activity. The Minister for Education put the emphasis firmly on physical activity again during the week when she suggested that PE be introduced as a Leaving Cert subject and that students should essentially be rewarded in points for physical activity. She is right, of course. And correct in her concern that the PE curriculum should be mindful not just of athletic students, but of those who avoid sport. I was one of those kids, and it's very easy to fall by the wayside on the physical activity side of things if you are not one of the sporty kids.
But this constant focus on physical activity sometimes leads to us ignoring the fact that diet is primarily what makes people fat and diet is primarily what helps people lose weight. The focus on physical activity and away from diet is an international phenomenon. For example, there is an organisation called the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), "a voluntary public-private, not-for-profit organisation dedicated to identifying and implementing innovative solutions - based on the science of energy balance - to prevent and reduce diseases associated with inactivity, poor nutrition and obesity".
The GEBN notes in its mission statement that, "around the globe, much of the current obesity dialogue focuses on regulating the environment as a way to promote healthy behaviour. While environmental change is crucial, it is also necessary to understand the psychological and social determinants of individual and population behaviour".
During the week, Dr Steven N Blair, vice president of GEBN, recanted a statement he made where he dismissed diet as a major determinant of obesity. In a promotional video for GEBN, Blair had said of obesity: "Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is 'Oh, they're eating too much, eating too much, eating too much' - blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on. And there's really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause."
What was really interesting about all of this is that, since 2008, Blair and Gregory A Hand, another founder of GEBN, have received millions of dollars of funding from Coca Cola, and Coca Cola also put $1.5m towards the setting up of the GEBN. In spite of this, Dr Blair's new position is less flattering to his benefactors.
While personal responsibility and good parenting is undoubtedly hugely important in the battle against obesity, there is no doubt either that we are all somewhat helpless against the environment created by the likes of Coca Cola, an environment where sugar - dangerous and addictive - is ubiquitous. The cliche now is to say that big food will be looked back on in years to come as being as bad as big tobacco. The more you hear about the funding of science designed to portray changing our food environment as misguided nanny state-ism, the more you would believe that characterisation.
Maybe sometimes there is room for the nanny state. If we have learnt anything in the last decade, it's that sometimes we need regulation to protect us from unscrupulous big business, and maybe this is one of those situations.