Saturday 18 July 2015

Sugar and the mythical past

Via Simon Capewell's deranged Twitter feed, I have come across a blog post entitled 'Obesity is the new plague' which demands a 100 per cent sugar tax. It is typical of its genre in complaining that modern food companies 'spike' good old-fashioned British cuisine with needless sugar. The author gives an interesting example...

Sugar is everywhere ... even in mint sauce – I always thought that contained mint and vinegar... Do we NEED it so much, is our traditional food so tasteless?

Sugar is naturally occurring in mint, of course, but it is true that companies usually add refined sugar to make mint sauce.

When did this devious practice of stuffing good, honest mint sauce with sugar take hold? The BBC's recipe for mint sauce recommends a level tablespoon of caster sugar, so the practice is clearly not confined to 'Big Food', but let's go further back and consult Mrs Beeton's famous Book of Household Management, published in 1859. Her recipe was as follows:

MINT SAUCE, to serve with Roast Lamb.

INGREDIENTS.—4 dessertspoonfuls of chopped mint, 2 dessertspoonfuls of pounded white sugar, 1/4 pint of vinegar.

That's rather a lot of sugar, isn't it, if you don't know anything about cooking? And it comes from a recipe book published 156 years ago that is a cornerstone of our knowledge about 'traditional food'. If you look through volume one of Mrs Beeton's tome (it's open access), you will see sugar being used very liberally, and not just in desserts like custard (3 ounces of powdered sugar), but in most of her soups, sauces and stocks as well as her recipes for salad dressing, baked carp, chutney, spiced beef, beef pickle, cucumber preserve, etc. etc.

Trying to reason with anti-sugar fanatics is probably futile, but they really should come to terms with the fact that sugar is not some radical new ingredient that has suddenly been poured into the food supply in the last thirty years. As I have mentioned before, the best estimates of historical sugar consumption show that the average Briton was consuming 90 pounds of sugar in 1901, whereas the average Briton today consumes something in the region of 75 pounds of sugar.

You have to go back a very long way - ie. several centuries - if you want to find cooking without sugar in it. Perhaps it is the goal of the anti-sugar wingnuts to take us back to a pre-Industrial Revolution diet that really was tasteless (notwithstanding all the salt and alcohol). Or maybe they just don't understand how basic dishes have been cooked for generations.

Cooking classes are often recommended as a way to tackle obesity, but it may be the anti-obesity crusaders who are most in need of them. Perhaps if they got used to dealing with sugar in tablespoons and cups rather than in measly teaspoons, they might come to their senses. They could start by making one of Jamie Oliver's cakes.

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