bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


Jamie Oliver and the hypocritical sugar tax

Jamie Oliver's Apple Berry Crisp contains over 5 tsp of sugar in a teensy tiny 100 g serving (i.e. 1/10th of this box)

Jamie Oliver’s Apple Berry Crisp contains over 5 tsp of sugar in a teensy tiny 100 g serving (i.e. 1/10th of this box)

This opinion piece about the proposed sugar tax in the UK left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I agree, Jamie Oliver is an hypocritical patronizing bully (remember that time he said “poor people” could well afford to cook better meals if they all have tellies?). On the other hand, the alternative solutions to the sugar tax offered in the article are quite likely to be even less effective. And I’m not being instilled with confidence by the author’s bio: “Alex Deane is an Executive Board Member of the People Against Sugar Tax campaign. He has a spare tyre, because he’s freely chosen to eat too much.” 

According to their website the PAST don’t receive any funding from food and beverage companies, only from private individuals. Of course, there’s no telling precisely who those individuals are and whether or not they have any ties to the food industry. PAST states that by not seeking money from food or drinks companies, “It means that people can be confident that our campaign has no conflicts of interests, and that we are the voice of the people”. Assuming it’s true, that all their money comes from people who just really don’t want to pay extra for pop, I’m still not sure that makes them the voice of the people. People who have money to burn on campaigns against campaigns against sugar certainly aren’t likely to be your average citizens. Interesting, considering that their central argument against the sugar tax is that it will be most damaging to people living in poverty. Since when do a bunch of conservatives and libertarians care about people who are struggling to make ends meet? I guess when it’s convenient to use them to make their argument sound noble.

I too have said that a sugar tax will unfairly hurt people living on limited incomes. I too don’t believe that a tax on sugar is the answer. However, I don’t think that the so-called solutions proposed by the PAST are any better, in fact, I think they detract from the real problems. Suggesting that improved nutrition labelling and “encouraging children to do more exercise” are far more patronising “solutions to obesity” in my mind than a sugar tax would be. Come on. These solutions once again place the onus on the individual and as a result imply that we all just need to make better choices. If only we could understand nutrition labels and get off our fat lazy asses a little more we would all be slim and fit and healthy. No matter that neither of these solutions addresses their central argument. You think that people living in poverty are going to benefit from improved nutrition labels and being told to exercise more as long as they don’t have to pay extra tax on pop and candy? This makes no sense at all.

The onus needs to stop being placed on the individuals. Sugary treats should be more expensive. Not because a higher tax is placed on them though, but because the food industry is no longer subsidized and offered tax breaks to create these products. Grocery stores could also stop selling these items as “loss leaders”, stop accepting money from the companies making these products to place them in prominent displays, stop giving them the prime eye-level shelves, and selling them at checkouts. Other stores that by all rights should not be selling food (I’m looking at you office supply stores, house-ware shops…) could stop selling candy and other food. Until we start realising that profit is not the be all and end all, and that the abundance of food, particularly “sometimes” foods that should not be consumed on a daily basis, is actually costing us more as a society in healthcare significant change in obesity rates and lifestyle related diseases is unlikely. We need to change our environment and shift our priorities. The presence or absence of a sugar tax is not the answer and arguing about it is taking us farther away from the real problems at hand.

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The spice for life


A recent study was being touted in the media for the benefits of eating spicy foods. The study looked at the diets of 512, 891 people (yes, that’s a huge sample size) in several areas of China. Participants were asked how often they ate hot spicy foods; never or almost never, only occasionally, 1 or 2 days a week, 3 to 5 days a week, or 6 or 7 days a week. Spicy foods were defined as; fresh chilli pepper, dried chilli pepper, chilli sauce, chilli oil, and other or don’t know. They found that those who consumed spicy foods most frequently were 14% less likely to die in the next five years than those who never or almost never consumed spicy foods.

Now, I love spicy foods, but I don’t eat them to live longer and this study isn’t really convincing me that any of us should be. One big precaution is the fact that the research was only looking at people in China. The effects may not apply to people of other ethnicities. Also, “spicy” is subjective. Something that I find only slightly spicy might be unbearably spicy to another person, and vice versa. There’s a huge risk of confounding variables when looking at things like this. It’s hard to say for certain whether any reduced risk of mortality can be attributed to the spice. In addition, the study looked at a huge range of ages (30-79) and many causes of mortality making it extremely difficult to ascertain whether or not spicy foods could be held accountable for keeping people alive. In fact, we don’t know if these people actually lived for longer, just that they were less likely to die during the course of the study.

Go ahead, go for the jalapenos if you like them, but don’t suffer through fiery meals 6-7 days a week in an effort to live a little longer.


Gwyneth Paltrow and the Seven Limes


Photo (7) Seven limes by Wikioticslan on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A few weeks ago everyone was mocking Gwyneth Paltrow’s food choices for a week-long food stamp challenge. Admittedly, they were a little ridiculous. I mean, it was nice to see that she chose things like dried beans, frozen peas, eggs, and some fresh vegetables. However, along with everyone else, I thought “seven limes??!“. Unless she got an amazing deal on those limes they seem like a nutritionally foolish expense. I saw some people posting their superior $29 selections. When Gwyneth failed to last more than four days on the challenge it seemed like everyone was more than a little gleeful. I saw others bragging about their success.

As much as we all like to take pleasure in Gwyn’s failures, I think that we may have lost the point. The point of this food stamp challenge is to show people how difficult it is to survive on such a limited food budget. To that end, it’s a good thing that Gwyneth failed. If she had happily lived on that little food budget then that would mean that all people living on food stamps should be able to contentedly survive on $29 of food a week.

Regardless of the choices that Gwyneth made, there’s little room for pleasure or flavour in such a meagre food budget. Note that there was no money for cooking oil, condiments, spices, or staples like flour and sugar. No coffee, tea, no chocolate! It’s nigh on impossible for someone to feed a family a basic nutritious diet when they are forced to rely on food stamps. More important here than Gwyneth’s failure to do so is the failure of the government to provide its citizens with the means to afford healthy, palatable food.

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Follow Friday: @healthiqapp


You guys, I am so addicted to this Health I.Q. app. Forget trivia crack. This is where it’s at. Just a bunch of nutrition and health-related quizzes. You earn points and see how you scored in comparison to everyone else. You can even redeem your points for healthish awards (I’ve got my eye on a three-month subscription to Nature Box). Questions are all vetted by healthcare professionals so they’re generally pretty good. If you do take exception to any of them you can dispute it after you answer. There are also discussion boards (which are not moderated by the healthcare professionals so don’t trust everything you read on them) where you can see tips from others and add your own on various topics. It’s a pretty fun way to test your knowledge and pick-up some new information while you’re at it.


When is a strawberry not a strawberry?: The marketing of food to children

Photo credit: Dr Dan Flanders. Thanks for the blogspiration!

Photo credit: Dr Dan Flanders. Thanks for the blogspiration!

One of my twitter friends recently posted the photo shown above and asked his followers to discuss the marketing of healthy foods; i.e. fruits and vegetables to children. My immediate reaction was to say that this was at least a better practice than the ubiquitous marketing of “junk” food to children. At least these popular characters are promoting something that parents and healthcare professionals are always trying to get kids to eat more of. Maybe if mum can’t get her child to eat a carrot Bugs Bunny can (I don’t know if kids even know who Bugs Bunny is these days but you know what I mean). Then I thought about it a little bit more.

Do strawberries really need TV characters to get kids to eat them? Strawberries are fairly popular amongst all ages, no? What about the leafy greens, the root vegetables, the mushrooms? Who benefits from this type of marketing? Not the children who aren’t gaining exposure to new foods. Not the parents who now have to deal with their children demanding expensive out-of-season fruit. Not the farmer who makes very little of the actual retail price of her/his product. Some marketing company I suppose.

What about all the other strawberries? Even if you argue that this type of marketing is getting kids to consume more fruit the fact is, it’s only getting children to consume more of one specific brand of one specific variety of fruit. What impact might this have on local farmers who don’t have kid-friendly characters on their packaging? This type of marketing does nothing to support local in-season fruit and vegetable consumption.

Besides the strawberries and the farmers does this type of marketing harm children? Possibly. As many argued after the Eat Right! debacle of putting the Academy of Dietetics logo on processed cheese slices, dietitians shouldn’t be lending their name to any food. Healthy eating isn’t about any one particular food, it’s about the broader diet. Putting a dietetic organization’s logo on a food product is not only a vote for that single food, it’s a vote against all of the other foods that don’t feature the logo. In a similar vein, marketing of specific foods to children promotes those foods and those foods alone. It makes food more about sales and marketing than it does about health and enjoyment. We don’t need to bombard children with more messages to consume (both in a figurative and in a literal sense) than we already do. Let’s make food more about food and less about profit.