Belfast Telegraph

Banning sugary snacks for kids will only leave a sour taste in mouths of most mums and dads

Patronising advice and punitive taxes are not the answer to solving obesity epidemic

By Fionola Meredith

Mum, can I have a snack?" "Why yes, dear, here's a lovely plain rice cake for you to enjoy. And if you're lucky, you might even be allowed another one later." "Can't I have a KitKat?" "Absolutely not. Haven't you heard about the obesity epidemic? No more chocolate, cake, buns, crisps or ice cream for you."

Now that's a recipe for disordered eating, right there, on a plate. Completely forbidding sweet or fatty foods as a snack - ever - will, in my view, cause children to grow up with a seriously distorted view of what it means to eat for pleasure and good health.

Yet according to advice from English health officials, this is exactly what parents should be doing. Public Health England (PHE) has decreed that children should only be allowed to eat two snacks of 100 calories or less per day, after research showed that half of children's sugar intake is being consumed in between meals.

PHE's chief preacher - sorry, I mean chief nutritionist - Dr Alison Tedstone says that "it has become a grazing culture, and people just don't think about how it all adds up".

Have you noticed how health professionals love to assume that we're all dumb lardbuckets, endlessly stuffing our cakeholes, too stupid to realise 'how it all adds up'?

And parents are often singled out for particularly patronising 'advice'.

With one in three children overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school, undoubtedly there is a problem. But thinking that the answer lies in urging parents to dole out only low calorie snacks is delusional as well as simplistic.

It's also advice that's - quite rightly - destined to be ignored. I mean, have you ever tried a rice cake? It's like compressed popcorn with all the fun taken out of it. Cardboard would be tastier.

This edict is only the most recent skirmish in the war against sugar. The big offensive will come in April with the introduction of a UK tax on sugary soft drinks, following a similar move last year in the Republic.

"Pure, white and deadly", as addictive as crack cocaine, sugar currently stands accused of causing heart disease, diabetes and outrageous levels of fatness in society, as well as numerous other ills. Forget salt, refined carbohydrates and saturated fat, they're only bit-part bad guys. Sugar is the evil one to watch.

Of course, it's nowhere near as simple as that. Health writer Rob Lyons, author of Panic On A Plate: How Society Developed An Eating Disorder, has pointed out several inconvenient truths.

For instance, he notes that annual sugar consumption in Britain actually peaked several decades ago, and people today consume less sugar per head than they did in 1900.

What's more, Lyons says there is insufficient scientific evidence to label any common ingredient, including sugar, as addictive, or to suggest that a calorie from sugar is more fattening than a calorie from other kinds of food.

He says that taxes on food and soft drinks have been shown to be ineffective at reducing obesity rates, and are really revenue-raising measures which "should be seen as stealth taxes, not health taxes".

And don't fool yourself that the sugar tax is a glorious strike against 'Big Soda', the global drinks behemoths like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

As the Office of Budgetary Responsibility has stated, the costs of the levy will be "passed entirely onto the price paid by consumers".

As ever, lower-income households will be worst affected.

People, quite naturally, resent being treated as stupid, greedy sheep who need to be guided away from foods that have been labelled harmful, whether through instructive measures like official advice or coercive measures like taxes.

They want the freedom to make their own choices about what they want to eat or what they consider good or bad for them.

Witness the 'Hands Off Our Irn Bru' campaign by enthusiasts in Scotland.

They are outraged that the manufacturer plans to halve the sugar content of the beloved orange drink, a traditional hangover cure, filling it up with artificial sweetener - which comes with its own serious health concerns - instead.

As far as I'm concerned, the Ancient Greeks worked this all out a couple of millennia ago, with the idea of the golden mean, the mid-point between excess and deficiency.

Everything in moderation, in other words.

Whether it's a glass of Irn Bru or a big slice of toasted Veda dripping with butter and Nutella (yum), a little of what you fancy does you good.

But dump the rice cakes where they belong - in the bin.

Belfast Telegraph

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