Jamie Oliver Is Right: It’s Madness Not to Clamp Down on Sugar

No matter what you think of Saint Jamie of Oliver, his timing is impeccable. Barely had the Frosties been cleared from the nation’s breakfast tables yesterday morning when, via Instagram, he launched his latest moral crusade .

Pictured in hospital scrubs and solemnly exhorting us to “save our NHS”, at first glance the chef could almost have been campaigning against cuts or privatisation. But his intended target is in its way just as political; the toxic alliance of a food industry peddling obscenely calorific junk with humans who seemingly can’t stop eating it, which some fear could together overwhelm western healthcare systems.

A documentary, precursor to his new series, Jamie’s Sugar Rush , airs tonight and, if past Oliver crusades are anything to go by, it will shortly become nigh on impossible to avoid the argument. So it’s worth clarifying what, exactly, that argument is.

Sugar is such an impossibly loaded subject because it’s never just about sugar. It’s about individual freedom (to rot your own teeth, or burst out of your own trousers) versus the state’s responsibility to protect its citizens, including occasionally from themselves; and it’s about corporate profit versus public good.

If anything, Oliver’s proposed 20% tax on sugary drinks is a pretty modest gesture (it’s hardly the end of pudding as we know it – he’s not asking for anything to be banned), but still it attracts the frothing rage of libertarians and the resistance of industry lobbyists. Oliver’s been there before, of course. But the extra twist is that this row increasingly pits parents against everyone else.

The argument for taxing or otherwise regulating the white stuff is almost always framed as saving the kiddies from an untimely death (Oliver says he was inspired by seeing his own four bombarded with fizzy-drink ads while watching telly). But what separates this war on Big Sugar from his school dinners project, or even from sin taxes on age-restricted products like booze and fags, is that there’s no way of weaning children off sugar without also affecting adult diets. And many grown-ups respond to that with all the fury of toddlers denied a biscuit.

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Daily life is now so laced with hidden sugar that most of us can’t even taste it any more

It’s up to the parents, they cry, to take responsibility; just give your brats water instead of fizzy pop, and stop sucking the joy out of life for everyone else. Yet the argument that this is purely a matter of individual responsibility and choice no longer holds.

Leave aside for a minute all those parents either too busy to scan packet labels, too addicted to the white stuff themselves to deny it to their children, or indeed barely capable of parenting at all. Forget that older children exist, and can spend their own money in corner shops. Forget the way cinema colas invariably come in supersized buckets, the worst of them holding more sugar per cup than the World Health Organisation recommends for the week; or that a takeaway latte can contain the equivalent of three teaspoonsful even if you don’t add sugar.

Daily life is now so laced with hidden sugar – lurking in everything from crisps to ketchup, bread and pre-packed salads – that most of us can’t even taste it any more. It’s become just another cheap, invisible trick of making any old dross taste appetising (and faintly addictive).

But even if you forget all that, it’s preposterous to pretend that knocking back the sweet stuff is purely a private matter – one that hurts nobody but ourselves – when the NHS spends £10bn of public money a year treating the consequences of obesity.

We can probably all reel off the statistics by now but they bear repeating: almost two-thirds of adults and about a quarter of children are now overweight or obese , ratcheting up their risk of everything from heart disease and breast cancer to diabetes. (More than three million Britons have type 2 diabetes, and although some of the recent rise is probably down to better diagnosis picking up cases that weren’t previously identified in the past, that doesn’t explain it all.) Astonishingly, the most common reason for British primary school children needing to go into hospital is now for the extraction of rotten teeth under anaesthetic ; that’s 26,000 operations a year.

At the other end of the age spectrum, meanwhile, a challenge to national productivity looms. State retirement age needs to rise if pensions are to remain affordable, but there will be thousands who simply can’t work until they’re 70 because they’ll be overtaken by chronic obesity-linked diseases that force them out of work before they can really afford to stop.

When politicians are scrabbling around for relatively painless ways of spending less, it’s genuine madness to ignore public health.

Odd, then, that those rightwingers who most noisily object to public money being spent on the “lifestyle choices” of benefit claimants are often the most vociferous about being left alone to eat cake. Could it be that they’re fine with the taxpayer supporting potentially expensive choices, just so long as it’s their choices not other people’s?

Cutting sugar isn’t the only thing that would stop us getting fat, obviously: increasing exercise, reducing overall calorie consumption and shrinking portions would all help. But the clear warning from the government’s advisory committee on nutrition this summer, over the link between sweetened drinks and weight gain , can’t be ignored; the only question is what to do about it.

There are perfectly honourable reasons for arguing that we should all guzzle less sugar, but a fizzy drink tax – modelled perhaps on Mexico’s recently introduced soda levy – is the wrong way to go about it.

It might prove regressive, hurting families already on the breadline if they can’t change their kids’ tastes overnight. Drawing up workable legislation may be hard too when a punnet of grapes is sweeter – if more nutritious, and harder to swig down unthinkingly – than a can of Fanta. Setting out to reduce sales of anything has undeniably harsh implications, meanwhile, for the jobs of thousands of ordinary people working in those industries.

But someone, somehow, needs to step between humans and the sugar bowl, given that decades of being nagged to do the right thing haven’t worked. Not for the first time, Oliver has stuck his spoon into something that needed stirring. He shouldn’t be afraid of turning up the heat.


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