It is my sincere belief that when future historians look back on 2017, the thing they’ll be most bamboozled by is the war on sugar. Sure, hotheads with bad haircuts in the White House and Pyongyang were swapping nuclear threats. Perfectly healthy young men were having their perfectly healthy genitals taken off in the name of gender fluidity. People who ought to have known better were singing Jeremy Corbyn’s name as if he were a mash-up of Nelson Mandela and Harry Styles.
But in the WTF stakes, the fact that mankind declared war on sweet, white, endorphin-unleashing sugar will surely make the history students of 2050 chortle and balk more than any of that stuff.
Sugar-eating is now talked about in the way glue-sniffing was when I was a kid. It’s hard to explain to millennials how terrified us 1980s kids were of glue. I remember art classes at primary school where you feared that one deep sniff on the Pritt Stick might propel you into a spiral of dependency and before long you’d be living in a skip with your face buried in a bag of UHU.
Some kids today must view sugar with the same dread. ‘Sweet poison,’ said a Telegraph headline over a piece claiming that sugar is ‘the greatest threat to human health, bar none’. I reckon the world’s 795 million badly undernourished people who’d die for a bite of the Mars Bar we rich, stupid westerners have sleepless nights about might have something to say about that.
‘Sugar: the silent killer?’ asks a US documentary called Sugar Coated. It’s also ‘the new tobacco’, ‘toxic’, and should be ‘put on trial’. ‘Sugar is the new crack cocaine’, said a Daily Mail piece last year, reporting that French scientists discovered that rats that were offered sugar and cocaine became more hooked on the sugar.
That could so easily have been spun into a positive story: ‘French rats opt for sugar over blow. Be like those rats, kids. Choose sugar. Choose life.’ But no, in these miserable, food-fearing times, in which Rolos and Fanta are viewed as gateway drugs to tragic sugar dependency, it had to be turned into a doom-laden tale. Having depicted the sweet stuff (usually on the basis of half-cocked science) as a worse-than-smack threat to the nation, the sugarphobes then push for authoritarian solutions.
Patronising warnings are stuck on food products to tell us they contain the evil white stuff. (We know! That’s why we’re buying them!) Schools have shut down tuck shops. (This has had the utterly predictable effect of cultivating what are hysterically referred to as ‘sugar pushers’: entrepreneurial kids who smuggle Smarties and Twirls into school and hawk them in the playground. Restores your faith in youth, doesn’t it?)
Then there’s the sugar tax, possibly the most depressing two-word phrase of this young millennium. From Denmark to South Africa, Mexico to our own benighted nation, governments have slapped taxes on sugary drinks with the express aim of making it harder for people (well, poor people) to buy them.
Such killjoyism. Such paternalism. Such a profound misuse of law to try to price carbonated joy out of the larders of the little people.
It’s a ‘sin tax’. That’s what the great John Stuart Mill called price hikes on booze: a moralistic tax on the ‘sinful’ behaviour of those who enjoyed a jar. ‘To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition,’ he said.
What the demented sugar panic really points to is a radical transformation in the whole idea of eating. We’ve become obsessed with ‘diet’. Which comes from the Latin diaeta. Which means a prescribed way of life. Diet is about maintenance, survival. But what about pleasure? What about eating not because it will strengthen a bone or toughen the heart, but because it feels good?
We aren’t animals. We don’t eat merely to make it to the next day. We eat to socialise and flirt and hook up and get a buzz. It’s a core part of being human that we treat food as a source of joy and not just a means of survival.
That’s what the sugarphobes really don’t understand — that scoffing cake with friends and grinning as the endorphins electrify our brains is proof of our civilisation.