There has been a lot of talk in the media this week about the introduction of a "sugar tax" to help tackle Britain's obesity problem. I am in no doubt that something needs to be done to help Britain improve its diet and tackle all the health issues but talk of introducing a sugar tax makes me really cross and for many reasons.
1) Firstly, I think people should learn to take more responsibility for themselves and stop looking around to see who else they can blame and to particularly stop blaming the government for not doing things when they do actually have individual choice and self-control. I fear that the current generation of adults is acting like a bunch of spoilt, self-indulgent children who are used to getting what they want, when they want it. We have everything "on demand" and the cash/credit to buy what we want. The creation of foods such as "Cookie Dough Ice-cream" perfectly illustrates the sort of society we live in. Being allowed to lick the spoon or bowl when cooking with mum as a child is supposed to be a special memory that brings back warm fuzzy feelings of a loving moment of shared enjoyment. As tasty as raw biscuit dough is when five years old and enjoying some attention from your mum, it is not something to spoon into your mouth by the bowlful whilst watching TV as an adult. As adults we are perfectly aware that some foods are full of sugar and best not eaten and we should avoid them most of the time, indulging in them occasionally if we wish. We do not need the government to force an increase in the price of fizzy drinks in order to have a lightning-bolt moment of realisation that these things are not the best thing to put into our bodies. And is something that adds an estimated 7p on a can of fizzy drink going to have an impact on people who like to drink them? Given that cigarettes are already highly tax but people still smoke them would suggest not, at least for some. Indeed, it is the poorest people who generally have the worse health largely due to smoking and diet. These people find the money for cigarettes by compromising on other things. Sadly, processed food usually works out cheaper than "real" food so someone struggling on a small budget is more likely to eat more processed food and anything that puts up the cost of food/drink is just going to make them eat less well. If the government want to make it so that your earn more by working than living on benefits, they should also see about making it cheaper to eat real food rather than junk. If the sugar tax can do this then I will heartily support it.
2) The obesity crisis and the appalling state of our processed food industry is a huge problem and a sugar tax will not solve it. I am worried that the introduction of a sugar tax will tick some box somewhere and the powers-that-be will sit back and say, hey, look we are helping, we have done this where in fact they should be thoroughly dissecting the issue and sorting all of it out. Although I do blame people who eat and drink obviously unhealthy foods for their health issues, I also appreciate that most people are eating stuff that they are unaware of and, despite making a conscious effort to eat better, are still ending up with stuff inside their bodies that they would wish to avoid given the choice. Although I say that people should stop blaming the government and take personal responsibility for their lifestyle choices, I do think the government should take the food industry in hand and properly look at what goes into processed food in terms of sugar, salt, fat, additive and processing aids. Much clearer labeling on food should be made compulsory so that we are better informed and can make better choices. All sugar ingredients should be labelled as such so that people are aware that other ingredients, such as fructose, maltose, corn syrup and alike are still sugar and that forms of modified starch get instantly converted into sugar by the body too once eaten. Fizzy drinks and iced doughnuts aside, it is all too easy to eat too much sugar when eating processed food.
3) It worries me that if a tax is put on sugar, they will replace it with other stuff that I really don't want to eat. This is something that already hugely bothers me and is already an issue. If sugar is seen as the enemy then artificial sweeteners will be used more and become harder to avoid. I hate artificial sweeteners, not least because they taste awful. Their health impact is extremely questionable, with talk of some being carcinogenic. More immediately, when you eat or drink something with artificial sweetener in it, your body detects the sweetness and prepares the body for the associated calories, including releasing insulin into the blood. When the calories do not follow, you are left with cravings and this can result in you eating something else to compensate. There is research to show that people who consume artificial sweetener instead of sugar actually get fatter. It also maintains the "sweet" taste in the mouth, meaning that the palette is not retrained to accept and appreciate less sweet food. If you wish to reduce your salt intake you are advised to cut down on salt and retrain your palette to enjoy less salty food. This is what needs to be done when reducing sugar intake, not substituting it for chemicals that are often hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. If the food industry were to make "reduced sugar" food and drinks that actually just had less sugar in them that would be a good thing but they don't - they put artificial sweetener in instead. And, what's more, they have to add other things to that food to replace the sugar they have taken out such as bulking agents, preservatives, things to improve the gloss or colour and so the whole thing ends up being a cocktail of artificial chemicals.
4) We need to stop treating children as children and more as small people. Why do we need food specifically targeted at children? Why do we have children's cereals, children's snacks and children's menus? If the answer was simply in order to give them the appropriate sized portion then that would be fine but it's not. Somehow we have been trained into believing that children won't eat breakfast unless it is sugar coated, or chocolate flavoured and shaped into amusing characters. We end up preparing different meals so that the adults and the children are eating different things because we say that children won't eat what we are eating. In many countries there is no such thing as a separate children's menu - just smaller portions from the adult menu... and children eat it. Japanese children are the healthiest in the world and they eat what their parents eat and, unsurprisingly, that does not mean Cocopops for breakfast. I remember reading in the well-respected Good Food Magazine a hot-cross bun recipe where it suggested replacing the currants with chocolate chips for the children. Do I even need to spell out why that lead me to a lengthy rant that morning in my kitchen. As a generation of self-indulgent adults we are indulging our children at an extent never seen before and we can all guess what kind of adults they will turn into. We need to get a grip on this or the problems will perpetuate through the generations. And I'm not having a go at parents because I know that it is a consequence of the society we live in and that children see things that they want on TV, on menus and from their friends so you are forced to at least let them try them, or fear creating the even more alluring "forbidden fruit" mentality. Just this week my 13 year old refused to take my homemade savoury munch seeds to school in her lunch box even though they are one of her favourite foods, just because in the past she has been teased by her peers about eating them. The contents of her lunchbox has to meet the expectations of her peers as much as her hairstyle, clothes and taste in music. And this, sadly, is a culture carried over into adult social media these days were people are proud to show how they gave into the temptation of a box of doughnuts, a whole pack of biscuits, bar of chocolate, a hot chocolate with whipped cream and marshmallows, or another bottle of wine and people "like" them for it. Yet, posting a photo of your dinner is considered a social media faux-pas, especially if it is healthy as, apparently, it is showing off and just makes people feel bad.
5) On a personal note, a sugar tax would have a huge impact on my jam business and yet completely miss the point in terms of helping people's health. Jam, when made the traditional way, is 50% fruit and 50% sugar, so, for example, the ingredients label on my raspberry jam will read: raspberries and sugar. It is not, despite the quantity and, indeed, quality of the fruit used, a health food. However, it isn't something, unlike Cookie Dough Icecream, to eat by the spoonful in front of your favourite on demand boxset. Instead, it is a little something to enjoy on your toast. I can guarantee that even eating jam on toast every day will not make you fat if (and this is the key point) it is enjoyed as part of a balanced diet. I have been asked many times if I make jam for diabetics and I have looked into how it is possible to reduce the sugar in jam. Last year I experimented with both just reducing the sugar content and using Stevia as a sugar replacement. Because sugar is required to make jam set, I had to use a gelling agent to make it set, adding pectin and calcium chloride to my jam. In addition, the jam lost its gloss and went mouldy within a fortnight. The taste, with the added Stevia, was to my palette, unpleasant too. The resulting jam had an ingredients list that read: raspberries, water, pectin, Stevia, calcium chloride. It was a useful exercise for me as it made me realise that this was not the route I wanted to take for my products, preferring instead the natural, traditional combination of fruit and sugar. A sugar tax would make my lovely, handcrafted, artisan jam even more expensive than the trash you can buy in the supermarkets but have absolutely no affect on the health of the nation. The point here is, a blanket sugar tax is not discerning in its impact and will probably make it harder for the smaller producers, trying to craft beautiful and carefully made foods that we should be encouraging and supporting whilst having no real impact on the big boys that are the real problem.
6) On a similar note, I use sugar in my baking and a sugar tax presumably would make this sugar more expensive to buy. When I make my cakes I can see exactly what goes into them and I can perfectly control the quantity of sugar used. I can also exercise my self-control and choose only to eat one slice at a time. Making home baking more expensive will not solve the obesity problem. Home baking and home cooking does not make you fat, it is eating processed junk food and take-aways as a matter of course that does.
The sugar tax is this vague "magic wand" that with one sweep is supposed to solve our problems but what we need is specific, targeted and well-thought through changes to the food industry. Hidden sugars need to be brought out into the open so that we can make better choices and properly avoid eating sugar without realising it. We need to collectively reduce both sugar and sweetness at the same time so that we retrain ourselves to appreciate less sweet foods. And we just need to take personal responsibility for our own diets (and that of our children) and accept that we cannot continuously indulge in this kind of food and not suffer the health impact.