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8th November 2016

Does our health knead the Bake Off?

With the widening of awareness to the dangers of sugar consumption, what do we do about the Great British Bake Off?

After being crowned the winner of the 2016 Great British Bake Off, Candice Brown spent a lot of time being interviewed and signing books, but soon went back to her day job as a Physical Education (PE) teacher.

A PE teacher as our national baking icon? I smell a soggy bottom.

Earlier this year, the government announced their plans to introduce a ‘sugar tax’ on soft drinks. As of 2018, drinks containing between five and eight grams of sugar per 100ml will be taxed at 18 pence a litre and drinks containing more than eight grams will be taxed at 24 pence per litre.

Regardless of the debates concerning this method’s effectiveness for curbing sugar consumption, particularly amongst children, this bill showed good intention from the government.

The move was made amidst a growing amount of public and academic pressure to act on the mounting evidence concerning the health dangers of sugar. It might well be said that this was the period that anti-sugar went mainstream. As Jamie Oliver punched the air in Parliament Square, the tutted tales of housewives and husbands across the country could be heard changing.

Sugar — speaking in the wider sense, from highly processed syrups to white flour-based carbohydrates, such as bread — has been linked to a myriad of health concerns. Through the development of insulin resistance, sugar is believed to be a major cause of obesity and type II diabetes. It has also been linked to heart disease, fat growth, and depression.

Furthermore, there is the question of sugar addiction. A 2007 study showed that rats make far more effort to re-access a sugar-laden solution than the cocaine equivalent. This is where the “sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine” statistic comes from. But studying the addictive nature of sugar in humans is more complex. There are, however, some physiological tests for addiction.

One is tolerance — the ability for one to become adjusted to a harmful substance. Addicts adjust so that higher levels of the substance are required to ‘sufficiently’ raise dopamine (pleasure) levels. Brain scans of those with high and regular sugar intake match those of cocaine addicts. The second test for measuring addiction is withdrawal. Here, sugar addicts show classic symptoms: ‘the shakes’, light-headedness, fatigue, muscle fatigue etc.

At the scale of the body, the danger of sugar is clear. But this fails to consider the strength of the industry, its advertising, and the advice of governments and health organisations.

To think of Jamie Oliver, or any other figure of our generation, as the pioneer of anti-sugar would put us over two centuries out of time. In 1797, Scottish military surgeon John Rollo successfully treated a diabetes patient by advising a diet low in carbohydrates.

This remained as common advice until 1977. This was the year that the USDA (United States Department for Agriculture) updated its dietary recommendations. The document recommended an exclusion of fat from the diet, and the inclusion of starches, bread, pasta, and other carbohydrates. In the 16 years prior to this, cases of obesity in U.S. adults increased by two percent. In the thirteen years after the change, the figure rose by 7.8 per cent. This is just one example of where a government has offered the wrong advice.

To this end, it is concerning that the soft drinks industry helped to sponsor a recent Conservative Party drinks reception, of which the business secretary, Greg Clark, attended.

In light of what we know about sugar, let us come back to the Bake Off. Host Mary Berry’s ‘Perfect Victoria Sandwich’ on BBC Good Food contains 225 grams of sugar, “plus a little extra for dusting the finished cake,” and 200g of self-raising flour. It is a carbohydrate feast.

How innocent it seems: a calm Sunday morning, a cup of tea, Union Jack bunting draped across the room, and a delight of a cake just finishing cooling on a rack. But I strongly object to this wild combination of British identity with cake. Where was the national consultation? Just last night I sat down for a cup of tea and a small handful of almonds. I felt nutritionally enriched (or was it the self-righteousness?) and safe from deportation under a retroactive use of the Citizenship Test.

As well as what we eat, we should pay more attention to when we eat. Take, for another example, breakfast. At the end of the Second World War, the U.S. had a cereal and milk oversupply. In 1944, Kellogs began an advertising campaign to promote breakfast as the “most important meal of the day.” Most research suggests that breakfast (and surrounding advice for “six small meals a day”) stops the fat-burning process, reduces energy levels, and is nothing close to the natural way for a human being to eat. But let’s push that to one side: the U.S. had a cereal and milk oversupply after the war, and today many of us follow suit in eating breakfast, whether it is cereal or not.

The examples of breakfast and the USDA’s 1977 change in dietary advice demonstrate how subject we are to conforming to eating habits. In Britain, 15.05 million people watched the final episode of carbohydrate-infested baking competition. If we are going to take a stance on sugar, even the cosy corners of so-called national tradition have to be questioned.

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