From ‘The Times’, Saturday March 8th 2014
It’s a beautiful spring day and I’m luxuriating in the winter’s departure – though still with a wary eye on the sky, as I’m mindful that this time last year there were hedge-high snowdrifts in the lanes near my house. When I arrived in Brighton in March 2013 for the conference at which I annually organise the speaker programme (and for which I am departing again tomorrow), the promenade was deep in snow and Brighton, that gaudy seaside princess accustomed only to balmy springs and mild winters, had stamped her foot and gone on strike: nothing was operating; not trains, buses or cafés, and the lone taxi driver who had ventured out deposited me at my hotel with all the air of a Himalayan Sherpa supporting a winter expedition. But tomorrow, I’m told, the sun will be shining, the temperatures unusually warm for the time of year.
It’s perhaps a little unseasonal of me, therefore, to embark upon a rant. Rants are normally reserved for foggy November days and chill winter evenings, when the humours are out of sorts and venting one’s chagrin upon the world is, if not de rigeur, then at least condoned. However, I haven’t had a rant for ages, so perhaps may be allowed a little leeway now. It is also unusual for me to comment on political issues, but I’m going to do that, too.
If you read the newspapers regularly, you will have noticed that the government’s latest frenzied preoccupation is with sugar. Yes, sugar. Not tobacco or marijuana or alcohol or ‘hard’ drugs or even prescription drugs, all of which we know to be major killers in the UK, but sugar. The government is considering the imposition of an extra tax on foods and drinks that contain high sugar content – whatever that means (the cynic in me whispers that this might – incidentally, of course – turn out to be a nice little earner). Meantime, the World Health Organisation (THE WHO?!) has suggested that sugar should form no more than 5% of our diet.
Now, I am not a scientist: in fact, if you were to line up twenty random people and assess their ignorance-of-science credentials, I reckon I would get the top slot, or certainly the runner-up’s. Because I needed a science subject in order to get into university, I studied Biology – that traditional ‘soft option’ for arts and languages students – and, after much labour, succeeded in obtaining a moderately respectable grade which was, incidentally, the worst of all my examination results, ever. However, I do remember quite a lot of the information from my ‘O’ Level Biology course, having managed to din it into myself by rote, and since then I have taken more than a passing interest in nutrition – particularly when I was a new mother – and food generally, as I like cooking. I can therefore state with some confidence that there are simple and complex carbohydrates and that both are absorbed into the digestive system as sugar. Yes, sugar. The difference is that simple carbohydrates don’t take any breaking down – they can more or less be absorbed in the form in which they are ingested, meaning that the person eating them feels satisfied for less time than if he or she is eating complex carbohydrates – which take longer to break down. Therefore, if you eat lots of simple carbohydrates – such as sweets, biscuits and soft drinks – you are more likely to feel hungry again sooner and therefore to get fat, especially if the next lot of food that you eat also consists of simple carbohydrates. Simple, isn’t it? (If I haven’t got this right, I invite those of you with a firmer grounding than mine in science to correct me.)
So far, so good. I have no quarrel with any of that, except to point out that simple carbohydrates are not always ‘bad’ – they can be very useful if, for example, you are out on a hike and need an extra boost. Think Kendal Mint Cake or Dextrosol tablets. And not all simple carbohydrates contain only ‘empty’ calories: some have vitamins, minerals and electrolytes that aid recovery from strenuous activity or illness – Lucozade, for example (though I accept that the same benefits can also be acquired through the consumption of more natural products, such as milk).
What I really want to contest is that the current witch-hunt to track down and vilify sugar seems to me to have confused simple with complex carbohydrates to such an extent that natural foods as well as manufactured ones are now being targeted. And, as I’ve indicated at the beginning of this post, the newspapers, which can often be relied on to counterbalance the government’s more ludicrous excesses with a little cod-wisdom of their own, have on this occasion jumped on to the same bandwagon. Take last Saturday’s edition of The Times, which contained a full-page illustrated feature called ‘The Good Sugar Guide’. At the top of the page, it says that the WHO recommends that we don’t eat more than six teaspoons of sugar per day. If you look down the chart, you will see that one of the biggest sugar ‘culprits’ is the banana. A banana contains, on average, seven teaspoons of sugar.
Exactly what kind of advice is being offered here? Are we being exhorted to give up bananas, that mainstay of just-weaned babies, children’s teas, lunch-boxes and commuters’ breakfasts on the hoof? Bananas, which have in some regions been a foodstuff since the dawn of mankind, and which are known to have a wide range of nutritional and medicinal benefits? (If you’re interested, some of these are listed at http://www.botanical-online.com/platanos1angles.htm.) Or are we supposed to eat six-sevenths of a banana today and save the rest of it for tomorrow, not minding that the remaining seventh is now brown and sludgy and possibly contaminated with bacteria? Or perhaps eat six-sevenths of the banana today and throw the rest away? Nothing else with sugar to be eaten, mind!
The chart proclaims, conversely, that a large glass of red or white wine contains only one quarter of a teaspoon of sugar. Now, I like a glass of wine as much as anybody – I’d say I am definitely in the top quartile of oenophiles. But even I baulk at the prospect of drinking twenty-four glasses of wine to meet my daily sugar requirement.
I’m exaggerating the case to the point of absurdity here, of course – but only so that I can point out that so is the government. I’d like to suggest that there can be no more futile a waste of time, and no more dangerous an exercise, than to confuse and worry people with a chart that lists a heterogeneous collection of foods of widely varying nutritional value with the sole purpose of isolating the sugar content and, on top of that, to fail to distinguish between added sugar and sugar that occurs naturally. We don’t need a nanny state to poke its nose in in this very unhelpful way. And we certainly don’t want to start paying tax on bananas. May I also suggest (if you’ll forgive the pun!) that bananas are low-hanging fruit as far as the government is concerned? Almost everyone eats them: all the major supermarkets rank them in their top five bestsellers. What the government needs to concentrate on instead are the thornier and more serious challenges: tobacco, marijuana, alcohol, ‘hard’ drugs, abuse of prescription drugs, and the rest, and leave us to take care of the sugar, in its various forms.
I feel an urgent need to wolf down a banana. I might have a glass of wine (gosh, alcohol), too. Excuse me.
And then… there’s cake…