Let me take you back in time for a minute, way back to the 1500s. Imagine a glamorous Tudor queen, majestically walking into a room full of foreign ambassadors. The ambassadors gaze at her spectacular clothing and magnificent presence. She walks towards them and opens her mouth to speak. The ambassadors lean forward and listen closely but… they can’t understand a word she’s saying. Why? Well, sugar, of course. The queen in question is Elizabeth I, and it is said that her love for sugar was so strong that her teeth turned black and her speech became incomprehensible. Over four hundred years on and our love affair with sugar shows little signs of fading away. All this might change though, because next year, the UK sugar tax will come into effect signalling that the ‘war on sugar’ has well and truly spread to the UK.
Unsurprisingly, soft drink manufacturers aren’t happy with the move; and, grumbles that governments are “too interfering” always keep coming up. However, accusing governments of unnecessarily interfering with people’s lives though assumes that people know the consequences of the food choices they make. Is this really true though? I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks the sugar industry has always tried to hide the truth about sugar. They’ve been so successful because they’ve done it in some very intelligent ways. Here’s how:
1. Blaming obesity on eating too many calories
Hey, it’s not what we eat, but how much we eat, right? This way of thinking absolves sugar from the blame for our obesity epidemic, because it is no worse than any other calories we eat. Tragically, it’s caused us to become a nation of ‘calorie counters’, focusing obsessively on how many calories we consume each day. But, too much sugar means when your body can’t burn this, it stores this as fat, and screws up your metabolism. It has also been associated with higher levels of cardiovascular diseases. So, all we really needed to do was cut down on sugar.
2. Labelling unhealthy food as being healthy
Pick up any pack of cereal bars and there will almost certainly be claims of using ‘natural’ ingredients or no ‘artificial colours or preservatives’. In our current food system, the unhealthiest food is often labelled as being the healthiest! We’re all impressionable and if we’re told something is healthy we generally believe it. We desperately need clearer food labelling. Displaying added sugar content in number of teaspoons present would be an easy way to do this. This would empower people – something the sugar industry always claims it is trying to do, but it’s unlikely that the industry would ever agree to such a self-destructive measure.
3. Diverting attention away from sugar to sport?
Coca Cola sponsors the Winter Olympics, International Football, Major League Baseball, should I continue? Companies such as Coca-Cola are doing all that they can to divert attention away from sugar, and towards other factors that impact health. By funding exercise programmes worldwide, companies are trying to make sure the movement for better health goes down the path of focusing on exercise, rather than diet. Nobody is denying the benefits of exercise, but you can’t ‘outrun’ a bad diet. Right under our noses, the sugar industry is using sport as a tool for diverting attention away from the disastrous health effects of sugar.
Over many decades, the sugar industry has succeeded in creating a food environment where making healthy choices is difficult to do. Thankfully, the tide slowly seems to be turning, and there is a chink of light at the end of the tunnel. Sugar can no longer be argued to be a healthy choice by any scientist who wishes to keep their credibility. Industry tactics have moved on from denial about the health effects of sugar, and have been replaced by diverting attention towards other factors that affect health such as exercise or sleep. We now need to take it one step further so that it becomes impossible to have a meaningful discussion about health without first and foremost placing the role of sugar at the centre of the debate. Accusations of an “interfering state” are unjustified when the truth about sugar has been withheld from people for so long. Only when all the facts are out there and clear to see, can we have a reasoned debate about whether it is right or wrong to impose extra taxes on food products that people buy.