Action on Sugar’s usual gimmick is to read the nutritional information on food labels, collate the figures and then alert the public, via a press release, that food companies use sugar as an ingredient. The amount of sugar is explained in terms of teaspoons and the quantities consumed are contrasted with the government’s guidelines. Never mind that the guidelines relate to added sugar whereas Action on Sugar’s figures show total sugar. Never mind, too, that the guidelines were arbitrarily halved a couple of years ago to ensure that everybody is eating too much of it; a sugar ration from the Second World War would take you over the guidelines these days.
This schtick works quite well for savoury products. If you’re the kind of moron who doesn’t realise that sweet and sour sauce has sugar in it or doesn’t know that white bread is supposed to contain sugar, you might find Action on Sugar’s press releases vaguely interesting. One consequence of the decline of home cooking is that people are constantly surprised by the amount of sugar, salt and fat that are used — and have always been used — in food. Action on Sugar likes to talk about sugar being ‘hidden’ because it implies some sort of chicanery, but everything is ‘hidden’ in food once it’s been cooked.
The inexplicable success of the Great British Bake Off has done nothing to calm the sugar panic. A certain amount of doublethink is required for a nation to go crazy for baking cakes while panicking over tiny quantities of sugar in tomato ketchup. Jeremy Corbyn personified this confusion when he described himself as ‘totally anti-sugar’. His hobby is making jam.
Jam is now firmly in Action on Sugar’s sights. Its latest publicity stunt exposes the ‘shocking’ amount of sugar contained in jam, marmalade and chocolate spreads. The worst offender is the seemingly respectable Women’s Institute, whose Fine Cut English Breakfast Marmalade has 14.3 grams of sugar per 20 gram serving. In the jam category, Mackays Scottish Strawberry Preserve is named and shamed for having 13.4 grams of sugar per serving and Tesco has the sugariest chocolate spread with 11.8 grams per serving.
Aside from a wry article in The Times, this ‘story’ has not received much attention from the press. That is a shame because the public need to know what kind of people they are up against. A spokesman for the National Obesity Forum says the WI ‘should never have allowed a manufacturing company to lace its product with so much sugar’. The chairman of Action on Sugar has demanded that jam makers ‘go well beyond the 20 per cent sugar reduction that Public Health England is calling for’. This is wingnuttery of the highest order and should be reported.
The obvious problem for Action on Sugar is that everybody knows that chocolate, jam and marmalade contain sugar. It is not newsworthy. But there is also the more subtle problem that jam and marmalade are not regarded as suspicious processed foods invented by scary corporations. They were made and eaten by your great-grandmother and the recipes have not changed since the days of Mrs Beeton. The idea that children are endangering their lives by eating two slices of toast with jam, as Action on Sugar has suggested, would strike any sane person as ludicrous. If having a bit of marmalade is enough to take you over the government’s guidelines, you might conclude that it is the guidelines that need changing, not the marmalade.
But it doesn’t matter what you think. Jam, marmalade and chocolate spread are going to be changed whether you like it or not. Like a host of other products, they are included in Public Health England’s ludicrous sugar reduction scheme. If the manufacturers fail to reduce sugar content by 20 per cent, the government is threatening legislation.
In a few years’ time, the only way to eat jam the way your grandmother made it will be to do as Mr Corbyn does and make it yourself.