I predict that 2018 will be the year in which we’ll see the New Puritans of “public health” broaden their attack on the food and drinks industry well beyond alcohol, to infantilise more and more adult decisions on what food and drink choices should be available to us. Indeed, the attack on sugar, and all the food, fizzy drinks and confectionery that contain it, is already well underway. What will be new is the intensity of the campaigns for food and drink product reformulation and the link-up between the ‘war on sugar’ and opening a new front in relation to caffeine.
The food nannies haven’t condemned coffee just yet, but they have started with an assault on highly caffeinated energy drinks. The sale of energy drinks in the UK increased by 155% between 2006 and 2015, from 235 to 600 million litres. And a recent paper from academics working for lobby group Action on Sugar says consumption amongst children is growing with the 10 – 14 years-old age group likely to increase its intake by 11% over the five years to 2019. The main dietary source of caffeine is, of course, coffee, but energy drinks are particularly popular amongst young people; so, the shrill cry goes up “what about the chiiiildren” as a means of justifying calls for a legal ban on the sale of highly-caffeinated energy drinks to under-16s.
To get ahead of the curve, and with some fanfare, Waitrose announced it would become the first supermarket to ban the sale of highly caffeinated energy drinks to under-16s. ‘Highly caffeinated’ is defined as drinks containing more than 150 mg. Inevitably, Action on Sugar is calling for a legal ban on the sale of such drinks to children, as is useful-idiot Jamie Oliver, who never allows a bandwagon to pass by without attempting to jump on it. A voluntary measure is never enough for the food nannies, and is always just one step behind a legal ban that would criminalise such sales.
If 150 mg of caffeine in an energy drink is ‘highly caffeinated’, how does this compare with the caffeine content of coffee? Well, that varies a lot, but typically a shot of espresso contains 60 to 100 mg. Espresso is the base for cappuccino, latte, macchiato and americano. So, one or two cups of coffee are the equivalent of the sort of energy drink Waitrose propose to ban under-16s from buying. By that logic, should this age group be banned from buying an espresso, or drinking more than one cappuccino in a single session? Haven’t the food nannies heard of product substitution? Doesn’t it occur to them that such a ban would be futile unless you extend it to coffee? Of course they have! Energy drinks are just the first step.
According to the Centre for Food Policy at City University, London, caffeinated energy drinks are “linked to” headaches, stomach aches and sleep problems and “associated with” binge drinking and drug use. Indeed, they are referred to as “legal highs”! All the ingredients of a new moral panic are here – health problem inflation, children at risk and drugs. And the Food Standards Agency already publish guidelines on ‘sensible consumption’ levels of caffeine. In 2008, they revised their daily consumption guideline down from 300 mg to 200 mg a day to make it more ‘low risk’! Is this starting to sound familiar?
Attacking energy drinks is such a tempting target for these nannying puritans because energy drinks contain not one, but two ingredients they consider highly addictive – caffeine and sugar – and they are generally fizzy! So, aimed at addicting the children then! I’m just waiting for some bright-eyed politician to say: “So-called energy drinks are available at pocket money prices and are cheaper than water” – and then we’ll know for sure they’re singing from the same playlist as the anti-alcohol zealots whose worldview they share.
Setting a good example!
But the self-righteous food nannies of “public health” want to set a good example, starting with sugary drinks. We’ve already seen them banned in schools, and now they will be banned from sale in NHS hospitals across England from July. NHS England has recently released an updated contract for hospitals, which for the first time includes a clause prohibiting the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages. As I write, we are in the midst of the worst NHS winter crisis in years, with people dying of strokes in ambulances because there’s no capacity to treat them, and yet in the context of all this Katherine Button from the Campaign for Better Hospital Food said: “This bold leadership from NHS England Chief Executive Simon Stevens is exactly what we need to tackle these big health challenges.” What planet are these cranks on?
Barr’s have announced that they will voluntarily halve the sugar content of their iconic drink’s brand Irn Bru. The twitter-sphere is full of people saying they are stocking up on the “real thing” in anticipation of the change. Lucozade is being similarly reformulated. More brands can be expected to reformulate to avoid the sugar tax.
Does this matter? Isn’t all this in the cause of better health choices for the masses? I think it does matter, and that there are no demon drinks or foods, only poor choices being made about consumption. Isn’t it curious that attempts to nudge us in the direction of “healthier choices” almost invariably means taking choices away from us with bans or sin taxes?
Paul Chase is director of CPL Training and a leading commentator on alcohol and health policy