Not a headline I ever expected to write but Damian Thompson, acerbic, catholic journalist has come out as an enthusiast for the pseudo-science of popular addictions, a core part of the New Puritan agenda. I'm sure others will point out that quoting Robert Lustig on the subject of sugar is rather like using a witch doctor as a guide to modern medicine.
The impression Thompson gives is that there has been an explosion in sugar consumption:
Year after year, the West’s love affair with sugar intensifies. But we pay very little attention to our compulsive attitude to the stuff.
Is this the case? For sure the world's consumption of sugar has tripled since the 1960s but we should note that the world's population has doubled in that time - so the per capita consumption of sugar has increased by around 60%. However, in the UK the National Diet & Nutrition Survey showed:
There were no significant differences in energy intake in any age or sex group compared with previous surveys. Intakes of total sugars as %food energy were lower in boys aged 4 – 10 y in 2008-9 than in 1997. In children aged 4 – 10 years, median daily intakes of NMES as a %food energy were lower in 2008-9 (13.7-14.6%) than in 1997 (16.8%). No significant changes in NMES were seen in children aged 11 – 18 years or adults. In all groups the %participants who consume fruit juice has increased. In children aged 4 – 10 years consumption of soft drinks (not low calorie) has reduced. No changes were reported for adult consumption of sugar, preserves and confectionery and savoury snacks. Chocolate confectionery consumption was lower for all children compared to 1997.
So despite the cup cake revolution, we're actually consuming less sugar than we were 15 years ago. As with every scare story - and I guess Thompson has a book to plug - in public health the truth is very different from the popular New Puritan headlines. We are getting healthier not least because our diet is healthier.
The real agenda from the likes of Thompson is to promote the purposeful life and to condemn anything that seems like hedonism - pleasure for its own sake.
Should we worry? Yes – for several reasons. Cupcakes and mini-bites don’t just play havoc with our blood sugar levels: they reinforce the sense, very strong among hard-pressed urban professionals, that life is only bearable if we reward ourselves with endless “treats”. Yet we also feel guilty when we reward ourselves.
The New Puritan is out - Damian Thompson accords entirely to its moralising creed. He disapproves of "addictive" pastimes - "prescription drugs, internet porn, computer games and dozens of other consumer items" - offering just condemnation rather than some sensible explanation of his position other than that it is sinful or, that worst of modern sins, unhealthy. And like many in this New Puritan age, Thompson cares little for accuracy, preferring instead the painted of disapproving pen pictures and the frowning critiques of doctors:
"Watch what happens in an office when somebody walks in carrying a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. There’s a general squealing sound and everyone rushes over excitedly. You’d think someone had just arrived at a party with a few grams of coke. People descend on it in the same way."
The doctor who Thompson approvingly quotes clearly goes to very different parties from the rest of us! And those squeals of delight? I've seen them over pizza, sausages and mushrooms, none of which are noted for their sugar content.
It may be that Thompson has a problem with sweeties - he certainly implies as much:
Supermarkets are constantly ratcheting up our anxiety about fatty foods while pushing things called “mini-bites” at us. Speaking as a sugar addict myself, I can only describe these as an invention of the devil.
I think we're getting to the heart of the problem - Thompson thinks 'something should be done' about sugar because he's a sugar 'addict'. All the rest of us should be refused access -despite being unaddicted (or quite comfortable in our addiction) - because he has a problem. All I can say to this is that Thompson should sort out his problem rather than pretend that it's a problem all the rest of us share.