Musician Frank Zappa once said: “Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe.” Which neatly brings me to Jamie Oliver.
Oliver has decided to become an anti-sugar evangelist, and in his recent Channel 4 programme ‘Sugar Rush’ he described sugar as “evil”. His response is to put a 10p ‘sugar tax’ on fizzy drinks sold in his restaurants which will go to his campaigning fighting-fund. And there are reports that Leon and Abokado are about to follow his lead. Social psychologists refer to this kind of behaviour as “virtue signalling” which is a gratuitous example of just such stupidity.
And then there are the double standards involved. Oliver tells us that we shouldn’t consume more than seven teaspoons-full of sugar a day. So, how does he justify the nine and a half teaspoons of it in his Eton Mess; or the seven teaspoons of it in his baked cranberry cheesecake; or the four teaspoons of it in his chocolate ice cream; or the two table spoons full of it in his bread? I could go on, but what is apparent is that saying “my added sugar is OK, but I’m not sure about yours” is just stupid. Sugar is simply a basic ingredient added to many foods to give taste and texture, and if we are to characterise that as evil then Fanny Craddock and Mrs Beeton will be turning in their graves!
The truth is that the campaigns against sugar, fat and alcohol all stem from the same ideology: ‘healthism’. Health campaigners believe that capitalism is wicked; that that the next big step forward in public health is to get the government to prescribe a national diet, and to nudge people into making the ‘right choices’ with sin taxes, bans and the mass reformulation of products. But the facts are not on their side.
According to the British Heart Foundation (2012: 107): “Overall intake of calories, fat and saturated fat has decreased since the 1970s. This trend is accompanied by a decrease in sugar and salt intake, and an increase in fibre and fruit and vegetable intake.”
Surveys carried out by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) since 1974 have also validated the fact that calorie consumption, fats, and carbohydrates, including sugars, have all declined since 1974. And that includes consumption in the home and out of home consumption too (The Big Fat Lie, IEA publication by Chris Snowdon). This research also indicates that per capita consumption of sugar, salt, fat, and calories has been falling in Britain for decades. Per capita sugar consumption has fallen by 16% since 1992 and calorie consumption by 21% since 1974. At the same time the average body weight of English adults has increased by two kilograms. This apparent paradox can only be explained by reference to the decline in physical exercise – at home, in schools and in the workplace.
But these inconvenient facts don’t suit health campaigners. They know there’s not much you can do about long-term changes to the nature of work or the decline in school sport, so they need to construct a narrative whereby Big Food seeks to addict us all to sugar and salt in order to flog their stuff. This is similar to the narrative about the addictive nature of alcohol and the slippery slope. This notion, that the docile masses need protection for the machinations of food and drink producers, who are depicted as little better than drug dealers, is what underpins the assertions of swivel-eyed fanatics like Graham MacGregor, chair of Action on Sugar; Mike Raynor, a member of it, and Tam Fry head of the National Obesity Forum – all of whom appeared in Oliver’s programme Sugar Rush.
So, how dangerous are sugary drinks and sugar in any event? According to the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) there is an association, based on “moderate evidence” between excessive consumption of sugary drinks and type 2 diabetes, but no evidence between sugar as such and type 2 diabetes; no association between sugar and blood insulin; and no association between sugary drinks and childhood obesity. The demand of anti-sugar campaigners to reduce sugar consumption from 10% of our dietary energy to 5% represents a reduction in calorie intake of just 100 calories a day. That’s going to cure the ‘obesity epidemic’? Really?
Jamie Oliver chooses to ignore the mainstream science and instead to give the oxygen of publicity to fanatical anti-sugar campaigners to whom he is just a useful idiot.
In the upcoming final series of Downton Abbey there’s a scene where the Dowager Countess, played by the wonderful Maggie Smith, asks her moral-crusading friend Mrs Hughes the following question: “Tell me, doesn’t it ever get cold on the moral high ground?” For Jamie Oliver the moral high ground is shifting beneath his feet because he’s just not bright enough to do some basic research. It should send a shiver down his spine.