Time to stop being so sweet on sugar…

UNSWEETENED tea for me today as I sit down on my ledge. Half a teaspoon of sugar was added years ago, a habit long since dropped. Strong espresso coffee is different, a dash of sugar rounding out the bitterness.

The amount of sugar you consume is easy enough to control if you spurn canned drinks and mostly make your own food. Not everyone one wishes to do this, which is why the food and drinks industry has just parked that sugar lorry round the corner, laden with tons of the sweet stuff.

What’s not to like about sugar? It’s sweet and people like sweet things. Brown sugar sprinkled on tart natural yoghurt works a two-way treat, Longley Farm for preference, a really good natural yoghurt. Cakes too, who doesn’t like a cake. Even sweets occasionally, although only in the car and out of a tin.

And honey, ah lovely honey is different. Except that it is still sugar. My paternal grandmother loved what the bees make and she lived until her mid-nineties, so there’s a good example for you. Didn’t drink, though – but let’s skate over that.

David Cameron doesn’t believe in a sugar tax. He does believe in sugar though, by the look of him. Such a levy is a “blunt instrument” according to the prime minister. So is taxing tobacco but nobody much seems to mind that nowadays.

Discretionary taxes on items that are bad for us is the traditional way a government tries to influence behaviour, although many on the right dislike this approach. On sugar they prefer to work with the food and drink industry, getting into bed with a nice sticky bun, as it were. The trouble with this stickily collaborative approach is that it lets the industry that causes the problems set the rules and the tone.

Sugar is on the agenda again, and not just because the porridge on the stove will need a dash of honey when it is done. Yesterday details of a long-delayed report by Public Health England – the government’s advisory group – finally dribbled out like sugar from a torn bag. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt had reportedly been sitting on this report for months (and is therefore suffering from sugary bum syndrome).

The report is called Sugar Reduction: The Evidence for Action and it should have been published in July. The excuse for the delay was that the Department of Health wanted to use its findings to inform government strategy on childhood obesity. By the look of it, this strategy could be summed up as: “Let them eat cake and ice cream too, all washed down with lashings of fizzy pop.”

David Cameron did love a midnight feast when he was at Eton, or so it seems.

It is hard not to suspect that Hunt blocked publication because parts of the report went against the government’s preferred option of holding sticky hands with the food and drink industry.

The recommendations in the report only leaked out yesterday after Sarah Wollaston – a GP and a GT (good Tory) – expressed her anger that it had not been published.

A sugar tax is supported by that mouthy buffoon Jamie Oliver and he is surely right. The description is his, by the way, not mine. I rather admire Oliver and his loud-mouth interjections on food, although his different sides are in competition: TV chef versus restaurant owner. But at least he knows about food.

It is very easy to become addicted to sugar. And it is very easy for the food industry to produce food that’s full of sugar. That’s when it’s not full of salt. Mass-produced food depends on cheap ingredients – and, what’s more, ingredients that create a hit consumers then crave. If we are bringing up a generation of overweight children and young people who love and demand sugar in everything they eat, then we have done something wrong.

The PHE report advises that the problem of childhood obesity is too serious “to be solved by approaches that rely only on individuals changing their behaviour in response to health education and marketing, or the better provision of information on our food. The environmental drivers of poor diets we face are just too big”.

Jamie Oliver says he “expects a kicking” over his demands for a sugar tax. It’s not Jamie that deserves a kicking. It’s the government for refusing to do anything that might upset its friends in the sugar-dealing business.

Ah, the porridge is ready. Perhaps I should skip the honey today.

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