Another societal mass delusion, this time about sugar


Yes, yes, we know, we're all becoming gross lardybums because Big Food insists on feeding us masses of sugar. And there should be regulation, banning, taxation, anything, to save us from exploding as we gain ever more weight and fat as we gorge. We know this must be true because the nation's favourite cheeky chappie, Jamie Oliver, is telling us so:

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.

Yet the real problem here is that absolutely none of this diagnosis is actually true. we're not eating more than our forefathers did, we're not even eating more sugar than our forefathers did. We are, in fact, consuming less of both than our ancestors did, even that we did ourselves only a few years ago. As Chris Snowdon has pointed out:

All the evidence indicates that per capita consumption of sugar, salt, fat and calories has been falling in Britain for decades. Per capita sugar consumption has fallen by 16 per cent since 1992 and per capita calorie consumption has fallen by 21 per cent since 1974.

If calories consumed have been falling then it cannot be a rise in calories consumed that is making us all lardybuckets. If sugar consumption is down if cannot be sugar consumption which is making us all grossly fat. It must, obviously, be something else. That something else being that calories expended has fallen faster than calories consumed. Perhaps the largest influence on this has been the general introduction of full on central heating in recent decades. After all, we are mammals and the major energy use in mammals is the regulation of body temperatures.

One more little factoid on this: the current average UK diet has fewer calories than the minimum acceptable diet under WWII rationing. Quite seriously: we are gaining weight on fewer calories than our grandparents lost weight on.

And thus as a society we find ourselves in one of those madness and delusions of crowds events. These are not restricted to markets gone haywire, like the idea that American house prices could only ever rise, or that tech stocks could be day traded to a fortune. They can be rather more societal in nature: think witch burning or the much more recent Satanic abuse mythology. And we are now in the middle of another one about sugar.

It simply isn't true that we are eating more of it, nor that we are consuming more calories in general. Thus the solution to our generally getting fatter just isn't related to our consuming more of what we don't in fact consume more of.