Child hand in glass pot of sweets

Jack Monroe: Sugar addiction and food poverty

Jack Monroe talks about the impact poverty has on children's health and how a sugar tax could affect those already struggling to make ends meet...

Sugar tastes good. It’s cheap, sweet and, like many drugs, is highly addictive. I have a close friend who was sent to rehab for drug abuse a decade ago. He is proudly clean and sober and consumes around five litres of cola a day. It makes him feel good and gives him a buzz of energy. His intake is extreme and there’s no real indication of whether this addiction is any better or worse than the one he was originally treated for. The difference is, one of them is illegal, the other can be bought by six-year-olds at the corner shop.

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Sugar shaming and the shock factor

I posted a recipe on my blog a few years ago for ‘Ready Brek-style porridge’ in an attempt to help struggling parents feed their children alternatives to what they were used to, for far less money. I asked my readers what they wanted me to tackle, and among ‘mac ‘n’ cheese’, ‘curry sauce’ and ‘tinned meatballs’ was ‘Golden syrup Ready Brek.’ The recipe: grind up 500g of oats in a blender on the pulse setting and add 100g of sugar. The comments accused me of trying to ‘shame’ parents, when in fact I was trying to do the opposite. Yes, the amount of sugar in that particular cereal shocked me (in reality it’s about two teaspoons per serving) but I wasn’t trying to do anyone down for choosing it.

On the other hand, one controversial television commercial showed a couple using every parental trick going to try and spoon sugar into their child’s mouth to demonstrate the amount in an average bottle of soda. People were outraged at the commercial, yet sales of fizzy drinks to minors continues without the bat of an eyelid.

Another recipe for homemade lemonade elicited the same pearl-clutching response, with 10 spoons of sugar to 1.5 litres of water and a whole lemon or two. It was half the sugar that would have been in a regular, branded bottle but for some reason mine was the demon, and the tiny black numbers on the plastic bottles in the supermarket are blindly ignored.

Sugar and food poverty

Several bars of chocolate superimposed

Evidence suggests that people on lower incomes, especially people with children, buy goods higher in sugar and fat. But we should be careful not to tar everyone in one income bracket with the same sugary brush. A slice of Viennetta might contain 11g of sugar, but a couple of posh Champagne truffles can easily outweigh that. We can tut-tut at the perceived amount of sugar in a cheap ready meal, yet on closer inspection at some supermarket own-brand macaroni cheese dinners, we see they contain no added sugar at all, while a high-end brand one can contain around 15g. My friend, mentioned above, certainly doesn’t fall into the ‘poor and struggling’ category. 

Who would a sugar tax hurt?

A tax on sugar will inevitably see price rises for products that contain it. I don’t imagine value range jam will stay at 30p a jar, although I have long asked that the prices of basic and value range products be fixed and the cost absorbed in the higher-end ranges. People generally only buy them if they have to and a sharp price increase can be the difference between eating and not eating in some cases. Someone paying £2 for a jar of jam would scarcely notice it nipping up to £2.20, but someone paying 30p for it would probably be priced out at 50p a jar. I’ve written to the major supermarkets to ask this. Ramp up the cost of cheap coke and lemonade all you like because nobody actually ‘needs’ those. Please leave the household basics, that make life a little more bearable, alone.

Reduce your sugar intake

I used to put six sugars in my tea when I was dirt-poor and not eating. A single mum friend was addicted to energy drinks while I turned them down horrified, yet spooning six sugars into my tea was fine! We both gave up sugar. Withdrawal was hard and exhausting and I relapsed (she didn’t). Now I take my tea black and sugar-free – unthinkable in the old days. So it can be done, but if your consumption is that high, go and see your GP. It’s an addiction and they’ll help you. Don’t replace sugar with chemical sweeteners either. I know I’m coming across all nanny-ish and looming but I know how hard it is to quit, how good it feels when you do and how much better I am for drastically reducing my intake.

We live in a country where clean, filtered water comes out of our taps, every single day. Stuff the large bottles of coke and turn your taps on. As I say to my five-year-old, you can have all the junk food you like, as long as you make it yourself. And when you’re spooning ten teaspoons of sugar into your homemade lemonade, you might just think twice about downing the lot.

Jack Monroe is an author, recipe writer and and anti-poverty campaigner. Her article Hunger Hurts depicted her life living on the poverty line with her toddler son.

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Not sure where you stand when it comes to a sugar tax? Read what Jamie Oliver had to say on the matter. Want to get involved in the debate? We’d love to hear what you think in the comments below…