Jamie Oliver’s sugar panic is making kids think they are doomed to an early death

The Jamie Oliver show arrived in Parliament yesterday as part of the health select committee on childhood obesity. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the Action on Sugar show arrived in Parliament with Jamie Oliver as its guest star since it is the anti-sugar lobby group that appears to be running this circus.

Last week saw the appearance of Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar, demanding a mind-blowing array of authoritarian laws which, he claimed, would eliminate obesity entirely. Next week will see another Action on Sugar kingpin, Simon Capewell, take the floor but to avoid the suspicion that this is an echo chamber he will be wearing his other hat as vice president of policy at the Faculty of Public Health. Other speakers in this short, three-day hearing are Malcolm Clark of the Children’s Food Campaign who was running the campaign for a fizzy drinks tax long before Oliver climbed aboard. Later in the week will see an appearance from Susan Jebb who was credited as an adviser on Jamie Oliver’s risible anti-sugar ‘documentary’ and who — surprise, surprise — is also a sugar tax advocate. She will be joined by Peter Scarborough and Colin Michie who don’t just want to tax sugar, they also want to tax fat and salt, so that should provide a bit of variety.

Today, however, was all about Jamie Oliver and that’s just the way he likes it. It isn’t easy being a devout anti-sugar campaigner when you peddle the stuff for a living but the MPs in the committee — most of whom are doctors — were never going to go all Paxman on him. With the questions being bowled at him underarm, Oliver came unstuck only occasionally. ‘We certainly don’t sell Haribos and Coca-Cola,’ he protested when asked about the calorific snacks sold at his Gatwick outlet. ‘Well, we do sell Coca-Cola.’

The sleb chef’s constant injunction was for politicians to be ‘brave’. Bravery in this instance meant being brave enough to tax fizzy drinks. ‘We,’ he said — meaning the government — ‘need to be big, bold, brave and, frankly, act like a parent.’ Leaving aside the fact that having the government act ‘like a parent’ is pretty much the dictionary definition of a nanny state, his call for bravery was intended to both flatter and imitate his inquisitors. He was telling them that if they do what he wants they can walk tall, but if they ignore him they’ll be cowards. But would that be bravery? It is true that taxes on food and drink tend to be unpopular, as the Danish fat tax fiasco demonstrated, but there is nothing courageous about wealthy politicians taxing the poor to satisfy the whims of a millionaire restaurateur.

Oliver’s performance dripped passion and sincerity, but being earnest is no substitute for being right. These sessions are supposed to be about gathering evidence and Oliver had little to offer. A question about whether a soda tax would be regressive — as it unquestionably would — was batted away with some wishful thinking about helping the poor lose weight. A question about unintended consequences was met with the glib assertion that whatever happened would be an improvement on the status quo. This was flaky stuff, to say the least. There was no acknowledgement that kids are drinking significantly fewer sugary drinks than they did in the 1990s, nor that sugar consumption has been in decline for decades. There was no discussion of the evidence, carefully marshalled in this study, that pulling economic levers has little if any effect on obesity. And, as in every session of these hearings to date, physical activity went unmentioned.

Evidence might not be Oliver’s strong point, but he can recite an anecdote. The most memorable of these was intended to shock but did so for all the wrong reasons. Recounting a conversation with a young school girl, he said:
‘This seven-, eight-year-old said to me “Jamie, why is it that me and my friends are expected to live a shorter life than our parents?” And coming from a child’s voice [it] was completely different from the data I’d read or talked about with adults and professionals.’

It is heart-breaking to think that children of this age are thinking about death at all, let alone living in fear of dying younger than their parents. But who is responsible for bringing this half-baked factoid into common usage in Britain? Step foward, Jamie Oliver. He has spent years claiming that ‘the next generation will live shorter lives than their parents’. He tells parents that their children ‘will live a life ten years younger than you’ despite there being very little evidence that this is so. The closest thing to a supportive academic study is a 2005 article from the USA (where obesity rates are significantly higher than they are here) which cast doubt on a previous claim that life expectancy will rise to 100 by the year 2060. The authors argued that ‘life expectancy at birth and at older ages could level off or even decline within the first half of this century’ if obesity rates continued to rise.

The article was clearly intended as a challenge to the conventional wisdom. It was not mainstream opinion, let alone fact, and the authors were far from certain that life expectancy would level off (as it one day must), let alone decline. When the BBC did a little fact-checking last year, it found plenty of reason to doubt it. The mortality rates for all the diseases associated with obesity are falling, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Obesity has not put life expectancy into reverse in the USA and it seems to have had almost no impact in Britain where rates are lower (and flat). There is no doubt that people born today have a higher life expectancy than the people who give birth to them.

Dodgy though it is, one can see how the kids-dying-younger-than-their-parents meme could be useful to a political rabble-rouser, but it is genuinely tragic to think that it has filtered down to young minds who naturally believe what adults tell them.

Assuming Oliver’s anecdote is true, this poor child’s irrational fear is a microcosm of what the great sugar panic has been doing to the country since Action on Sugar launched its ridiculous campaign last year. Some day we will look back with bemusement on the days when a teaspoon of sugar was viewed as a unit of harm. Let us hope that day comes soon, before the mental health of a whole generation is irreparably scarred.

  • Andrew Cole

    bananas are already cheaper than a chocolate bar and water is free 🙂 With this in mind why does anyone thing an extra 10% is going to alter things?

    The only way is to give up trying to convince the current generations of parents and educate the children at school so that they may persuade / harang their parents to alter things…………much like the recycling thing in the noughties.

  • lolexplosm

    How and why did a celebrity chef with no qualifications or real nutritional expertise become a witness to a parliamentary committee?

    At least he hasn’t gone into full low carb woo and advocates a balanced diet at least. I do think he’s trying to do what he thinks is best in some part. The other part is just publicity.

    • Andrew Cole

      Exactly. Look out for the TV series on it with accompanying book(s)

  • The authoritarians in this article are the enemies not only of obesity but of freedom and the basic right to eat as one wishes, using one’s own judgement and the findings of true knowers — which these people are not! The politics of this is really bad news and should be opposed forthwith.

    On a lesser note, why are they banging on NOW about fizzy drinks when sucralose, a quality sweetener, and other harmless sweeteners are prevalent and freely available in such drinks? Why are they anti-fats when it is now generally accepted that not only does the body require natural fats but that it’s the refined processed grains that have been championed to the public for the past 40 years that actually cause metabolic damage! Why are they anti-salt when, again, salt has been cut in many tinned and processed foods already, artisanal salt is very fashionable and accessible, and people are arguably in some cases not getting enough?

    I have known obese people. The foods they eat would be fine if eaten in the right quantity with the right frequency and if, what is more, they had a taste for physical training (a taste that can be acquired). Taxing or otherwise interfering with the supply of perfectly normal foods is immoral, ineffectual, and will end up doing far more harm than the good its misguided advocates intend.

  • Augustus

    Sugar guru Jamie Oliver, the elephant in the kitchen.

  • Augustus

    Evidence might indeed not be Oliver’s strong point, but it must be obvious to anyone looking around today’s high streets that there are a great many obese people with enormous girths and derrieres wobbling around. Oliver seems to think that too many parents haven’t got a clue about how much sugar kids drinks contain, so he’s put a label on them, a selection of which he passed around, showing the amount in teaspoons per half litre bottle (Ribena, for example, was said to contain 13 teaspoons of sugar). His best point, however, was that today’s kids were more than likely to being educating their parents about sugary food and drinks rather than the other way around, which say’s a lot about today’s parents.

  • Alan M.

    The law of unintended consequences suggests that people will drink more beer instead of sugared drinks thereby killing themselves and others faster as a result of the tax.

  • tinio

    I think people forget we already pay VAT on confectionery. So arguably we already have a tax on sugar. OK it is not across all products, but the government do penalise some of your food choices at the moment

  • xiribu

    So kids age of 7 do not think of death?… Perhaps when they walk into a church and see Jesus nailed to the cross or when the priest lectures them about heaven and hell, don’t they think of it??

  • Shirley Blanch

    I genuinely don’t think kids are living in fear of an early death because Jamie Oliver is telling them sugary drinks are bad…death seems a long way off when you’re a kid, give mine the option of a few more years or quaffing coke I know which they’d choose. Anyway they haven’t got time to worry about that they’re too busy being stressed to death with Mr Gove’s SATS and GCSE reforms.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    When on the third-world Asian backpacker trail, I can be quite difficult to find a non-sweet soft drink other than water.
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

  • emma2000

    I visited my granddaughter’s large primary school for a dance show the other day, in view of everything I have read recently I paid attention and did not see even one obese child. When I was at primary school there was always just one but I did not see a plump child never mind an obese one. Where are they all? I have always ignored every bit of ‘advice’ and have watched it turn full circle over the years many times.