Monday 25 January 2016

Oh! Sugar!

The upside of your children going to school is that you finally get a little time for yourself. Ok, that time tends to be almost entirely occupied by work but at least work tends not to scream and stamp its feet quite as much as a four year old.

The downside of Marty going to school though is that we lose a little control. Ok, I’m no control freak so this isn’t a big deal but I do worry… about sugar.

Don’t get me wrong, sugar is wonderful stuff. It’s a terrific and completely natural source of energy. We are all hard wired to find sugar delicious. In fact, from a biological point of view, it pretty much defines the word ‘delicious’. You could scrape up something from the darkest recesses of your drains and by coating it in enough sugar make it taste appealing – a fact that has not been over looked by the food industry.

Given half a chance all of us would gladly gorge ourselves on sugary foods, we’re pre-programmed to do it and it would take an awful lot of effort to deny this entirely natural drive. Of course, for hundreds of thousands of years this was not a problem. Most sugar was only seasonally available and you had to either dig it up, wait for it to drop from a tree or be prepared to take on an awful lot of bees if you wanted to get at it.

Times changed but sugar stubbornly remained a luxury and a rare treat until the 1950’s when cheap corn syrup suddenly erupted onto the scene. All of a sudden we really could get as much as we wanted, which would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that we wanted a lot…. an awful lot.

The food industry quickly realised that this cheap additive could make damp cardboard taste delicious, so why not make it taste super delicious? Before long pretty much every processed food product contained added sugar. Worse still, was the effect sugar had on drinks; why make a cola that tastes ok with 4 teaspoons of sugar, when you can make it taste great with 8 teaspoons full?

And then came the most audacious marketing campaign in recent history, the “High Energy Drink”. Here we have a population already saturated with cheap sugar, a population that needs extra ‘energy’ like a fish needs a bike. Yet they somehow managed to con the majority of the population into thinking that their sporting ability would be enhanced if only they consumed a bit more sugar – and a bit of salt and a few things with long Latin names just to make it all look scientific!

It’s truly amazing! To get any benefit from these drinks you’d have to be jogging to Aberdeen twice a week – the caveat being that you don’t already live in Aberdeen. Seriously, you really need to be pushing yourself to the physical edge to get any genuine benefit from these drinks yet I’ve seen small boys knocking back these drinks just because they’ve kicked a football around a field for a bit! No child should be subjecting their bodies to the sort of demands that a high energy drink is designed for, yet, because of this marketing, they feel under pressure to use them, with the result that the poor souls are leaving the football pitch a little fatter than when they jogged on to it.

As a parent a lot of things worry me, it’s part and parcel of the job. The fact that Marty’s generation is predicted to be the first western generation to have a lower standard of living than their parents is a worry – although we’ve set the bar pretty low so he should be able to just edge us. Another, far bigger worry, is that his generation will likely be the first to suffer a drop in life expectancy. 

There are a lot of factors at play here, not least of which is that governments around the world seem to have decided that they are not responsible for anything any more and that they should just leave the world to the capitalists. In some areas this might be sane but when it comes to science it’s idiocy; when profit is the driving force behind research a breakthrough in new antibiotics is going to come way behind a cure for baldness, 3D TV’s and perkier boobs. As our antibiotics become less and less effective life expectancy will plummet. As if this wasn’t bad enough we exacerbate the problem by deliberately making ourselves unhealthy.

I say deliberately because it is completely unnecessary; when a young child is thirsty their bodies are craving water. If you give them water, the thirst goes and the association between water and thirst is strengthened, so water actually starts to taste good. Alas, a huge amount of parents in the west feel that water is somehow inadequate so they add some fruit juice – which must be good for them because it’s got the word ‘fruit’ in it. As a result, the child grows up associating sugary drinks with thirst. Every time they feel thirsty they drink sugar, quite a bit of it because it’s not as good at quenching thirst. So every time they satisfy their thirst they take on board 100’s of calories that they have absolutely no need for. Keep this up for just a few years and you have a child who, through absolutely no fault of their own, is overweight. At which point society turns around and starts blaming and name calling with mindless enthusiasm.

Ok, sugar isn’t the only culprit in the rise of obesity but is it the main player primarily because the majority of people still view sugar through rose tinted glasses. We wouldn’t celebrate an event in our child’s life by handing out fags or dishing up great lumps of lard but we will immediately reach for the sugar.

‘Oh there’s no comparison between sugar and fat and fags!” I hear you say. Well you may be right but, in the early part of the 20th century, cigarettes were regarded as a cure-all for pretty much everything and foods with a high fat content were our everyday treats. Tobacco and fat haven’t changed since those days, just our attitude; we realised the dangers and moved away from them.
The same thing is starting to happen with sugar and I suspect that in 20 years’ time it will be quite rare to see a parent giving a child a can of coke or a bag of sweets. Alas, Marty is four so if we leave it to society alone it’s going to come too late for him.

So we’ve been fighting our own little fight, not to avoid sugar completely but to keep it to a bare minimum, and educate Marty about the downside to this glorious sweetness. Sadly, this fight gets that much harder once they start school. It’s not really a problem with the school itself, although many do seem to have a rather outdated attitude to sugar, rather it’s the other parents, many of whom don’t seem to share our concern.

Virtually every little event in a young person’s life seems to be celebrated by swamping them and their friends in sugary treats, so much so that it’s not really a treat anymore, it’s become commonplace. If we’d left Marty to his own devices his sugar intake would have quadrupled since he started school!

The huge problem with this is that, whilst it’s relatively easy to keep a small child away from sugar, it is very, very, hard to get them to cut back on sugar once they’ve got a taste for it. The other long term problem is that of ‘association’. A number of fast food companies have gone to great lengths to associate their products with the good times of childhood because they know that the food habits and associations formed in childhood tend to stay with us for the rest of our lives. If your child grows up eating healthily the odds are they will always eat healthily. If they grow up regarding sugar as a treat and a mark of the ‘good times’ it will be the first thing they reach for in adulthood when they are feeling fed up and depressed, that or the burger that reminds them of childhood parties.

Of course this is no reason to demonise sugar, or burgers for that matter, but if our children are going to grow up healthily they need to learn to avoid sugary foods in much the same way as we’ve already learnt to avoid fatty foods. We wouldn’t give a child a tub of lard for their birthday so think twice about giving them a bowl of sugar, even if that sugar is hidden in colourful jelly, and what ever you do, don't give them yet more sugar to quench their thirst afterwards.