A mother collects her child from a southside Dublin birthday party. She asks about the party and what they all had to eat.
“McDonald’s!” replies the child. The mother drives straight to St Vincent’s hospital to see if she can get her child’s stomach pumped …
It's an urban myth (though I'm not so sure myself) but when Irish parents are getting piously judgmental letters from schools about the sugar content of their children's packed lunches and with sugar now being routinely referred to as "the new heroin" (albeit by those whose only qualifications appear to be shiny hair and an Instagram account), this new demonisation of sugar is quickly becoming the moral panic du jour.
Any amount of borderline-intelligence “media personalities” advocating a sugar-free diet coupled with the number of “Sugar is Evil and Will Make You Fat and Horrible”-style books currently clogging up the publishing cycle not just make a mockery of the science of nutrition but, worse, are spreading panic and neurosis among those looking for sensible dietary advice in a nutrition world populated by freaks and fundamentalists.
Since the publication of John Yudkin's groundbreaking work Pure, White and Deadly (The Problem of Sugar) in 1972 we have been all too aware of the serious medical/lifestyle problems associated with overconsumption of sugar. The key word here being "overconsumption".
But this new puritanical proscribing of sugar as a “poison” – the complete elimination of which will lead to us all becoming shiny, happy people – crucially comes not from the scientific/medical world but from lunatic, self-appointed lifestyle gurus.
Anthony Warner, author of the forthcoming The Angry Chef – Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating, finds that the claims that sugar is both a poison and is addictive and that it is uniquely linked to obesity and many other deadly conditions simply don't add up.
"Every credible scientific review of the evidence [for example, the Scientific Advisory Commission on Nutrition's 2015 Report or the World Health Organisation's 2012 meta-analysis], say that although we definitely eat way too much, sugar is a facilitator of excess calorie consumption, not an addictive poison. I have always struggled to understand why many serious commentators [and a few campaigning chefs] choose to believe poorly qualified new-age gurus above the consensus of scientific opinion," he writes.
You cannot be a functioning member of society today and not know that sugary products represent empty calories that will add to your weight. But we’re beyond that argument now.
It’s the superior, sanctimonious, sugar-shaming smarm of those who view any consumption of sugar as “self-harm”, as polluting our body with poisonous toxins – as the fat, waddling road to perdition.
If you want to eat a diet more appropriate to a donkey than a human being and view a sugary drink as a worse evil than meths, you are not only fundamentally misunderstanding the basic rules of nutrition but being a peevish, po-faced bore with a Taliban-esque adherence to food virtuosity.
Sugar, now and again, won’t kill you or make you hideously repulsive. It’s associated with joy, pleasure, childhood, reward. It tastes nice. It should not be used as the basis for excommunication.
Sugar-shaming is not just about sugar, it’s about our wider relationship with food. The current belief that the food we eat has supernatural powers over our health and wellbeing is nothing more than urban witchcraft.
Yes, diet matters importantly but not to the extent that removing one “evil” foodstuff (ie sugar) will inoculate us against stroke, heart attack, cancer, diabetes, make us seductively skinny, improve our sex life and bathe us in serene happiness etc – all claims made by the foaming-at-the-mouth proponents of a sugar-free diet.
What you eat and how much/little you exercise over a week/month/year will give you the real picture, not the distorted circus mirror effect of what an unqualified, unregulated shamen with a cutesy lifestyle blog offers up.
And there is an ugly class bias to this new food fascism. Try giving the old Irish staple of a sugar sandwich to a child these days and most likely a SWAT team will descend on your home. Sugar sandwiches are an economic necessity for some families; the middle class/Instagram-friendly Eat Clean movement will advise an “irresistible quinoa and fragrant cilantro salad” instead, while also sugar-shaming people who are doing their level best for their families.
With sugar, as with everything else, best listen to experts not eejits.
Free your mind. And your taste buds will follow.