Jamie Oliver has been stirring the pot again and getting all het up. In the run-up to a recent Channel 4 documentary Jamie’s Sugar Rush, the outspoken TV chef launched a campaign against sugary drinks and the ‘hidden’ sugars in our food. He said that a ban on sugary food ads before 9pm, rules to prevent the sale of overly-sweetened processed foods, and a 20p per litre ‘sugar tax’ on soft drinks would make us all healthier and happier.
Those of you who listened to Mr Oliver’s rantings will know that sugar is making us fatter, is putting us at increased risk of diabetes, and is costing the NHS £30 million a year in pulling out kid’s sugar-rotten teeth. His claims leave a bitter taste in the mouth but he is mostly right (with the exception of the slightly exaggerated dental health claim). Science has repeatedly shown us that eating too much sugar will ultimately cause a raft of health problems. Most of us are eat far too much of the stuff and kids are the ones most at risk.
Yes, I know that all of us went to the sweetshop as children to buy cola bottles and bonbons, but these occasional sweet treats aren’t the biggest concern. Far more worrying is the sugar that has been tipped into our food when we weren’t looking. For the past thirty years, as sugar prices have dropped food manufacturers have gradually made our foods sweeter in an effort to improve their taste. Kellogg’s Special K, for example, had less than a teaspoon of sugar per bowlful in 1978, but now packs in almost twice as much (5g) – a similar amount to what is in ice-cream. The sickly white powder has also slipped into breads, soups and sauces and – because we are eating more convenience foods than ever before – we have fallen in love with sweet things.
Our palates may have altered but be wary of talk of ‘sugar addiction’. Much has been written about sugar’s similarity to cocaine and other narcotics but it should be taken with a pinch of salt. The science upon which claims are based is dubious and draws from rodent research and brain scans. Eating sweet foods is pleasurable and triggers ‘reward pathways’ in the brain, in a similar way to drugs can; but then so do lots of other pleasurable experiences, such as sex or going on a rollercoaster.
Taxing sweetened drinks will certainly go some way to curb our sugar intake. In Mexico, where they love their sweetened beverages more than most, a small tax on drinks and junk food introduced last year has already started to improve the nation’s health. Mr Oliver’s best suggestion, however, doesn’t affect our wallets but puts pressure on the food companies. A few years ago, the government told food manufacturers to cut back on the salt they added to their foods. Without anyone noticing, recipes for processed foods were ‘reformulated’ and, as a result, we now eat less salt than we did a decade ago. Rates of stroke in the UK have simultaneously plummeted.
Life-saving recipe changes for sugar could do similar wonders for our waistline and overall life expectancy. Getting behind Jamie’s campaign is one way to help bring about such positive changes. But by spearheading the cut-back-sugar crusade, Jamie Oliver finds himself in a sticky situation. A single portion of nearly all of his dessert recipes exceed the World Health Organisation’s sugar intake guidelines. So perhaps it’s time for the TV chef to eat some humble pie and do a bit of recipe reformulation himself.
Thanks for reading – all opinions expressed are my own. Feel free to add your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. Follow @realdoctorstu
Photo credit: TED Talks under Creative Commons licence