Friday 7 May 2021

Jamie Oliver’s guilty sugar secret: his own recipes are full of the stuff

First published by Spectator Health in September 2015

Imagine a country in which state-subsidised television networks wheel out popular celebrities to scare the masses into supporting more taxes. Imagine no longer. This is not a dystopian future, this is Jamie’s Sugar Rush.

According to a Guardian journalist, Mr Oliver is ‘extremely well liked’. If so, I have drifted further from mainstream public opinion than I realised. In his guise as a TV evangelist on Channel 4 last night, he increasingly resembled a cadaver being zapped with electricity, all blank eyes and random facial expressions. ‘I’ve come here to get my head around it,’ he said with faux-naivety as he prepared to fire loaded questions at another sympathetic interviewee. In an hour of staged encounters and predictable factoids, it was the voyage-of-discovery charade that grated more than anything. It was always going to end with advertising bans, higher taxes and a new crusade for a celebrity chef. Channel 4 knew it, we knew it and Jamie knew it.

There were moments of propaganda in this programme that Kim Jong-Un would have rejected for being too crude. Towards the end, Oliver confronted a bunch of big-wigs to tell them about the revolutionary idea that had emerged from his awakening. The idea was a tax on sugar. Ooh, controversial. Jamie was nervous. How would they react?

Lo and behold, they liked it! Graham MacGregor spoke at length about his support for the proposal. Tam Fry thought it was great. Mike Rayner was also keen. What are the chances? It so happens that MacGregor is the chairman of Action on Sugar, Mike Rayner is a member of Action on Sugar (although the programme did not credit him as such) and Tam Fry, head of the National Obesity Forum, has been going on about taxing food for as long as I can remember. How fortuitous that three of the country’s leading anti-sugar fanatics were in the room.

The millionaire chef is now doing his bit by putting a ‘tax’ on sugary drinks in his own restaurants. The money will go towards a fighting fund to campaign for higher taxes for all. This is Oliver’s contribution to the fight against a product that he says is ‘evil’, a strong word and yet a strangely weak response. People who run vegan restaurants think that killing animals is evil, but they don’t settle for increasing the price of a steak by 10p. They stop serving it. Oliver’s approach is rather different. He hikes the price of a glass of Coke from £2.60 to £2.70 while selling cookery books which are, to put it gently, not wholly consistent with his trenchant anti-sugar views.

Jamie says we shouldn’t be eating more than seven teaspoons of sugar a day. Will he therefore be apologising for his ‘chocolate love cake’ recipe that contains 21 teaspoons of the stuff? What about his sticky toffee pudding (12 teaspoons) or his tasty sundae (16 teaspoons)? Will he be recalling and pulping the cookery book that gave the world his recipe for gluten-free Christmas cake in which every slice had 28 teaspoons? (Jamie has not yet updated his website to include the new sugar guidelines, but that is now four times the recommended daily amount.)

‘Those are desserts!’, I hear you cry. ‘It’s the ‘hidden’ sugars in breakfasts, main courses and drinks that are the real problem.’ OK then. In Jamie’s Sugar Rush, the great man bemoaned the ‘added sugars’ in bread. His own loaf requires two tablespoons — that’s tablespoons, not teaspoons. His pancakes, which were recently promoted in the Sunday Times as a ‘healthy breakfast’, have 17 grammes of sugar per serving — more than a bowl of Frosties. His salmon dish has three teaspoons of sugar, as does his chicken garden soup. As for drinks, how about trying one of Jamie’s milkshakes, which contain more sugar than a can of Coke?

I could go on and on. The point is not that Jamie Oliver has double standards. The point is that any professional chef would appear hypocritical if he started demonising a staple ingredient. Oliver’s recipes don’t use sugar excessively or gratuitously. They are not toxic, addictive or evil. They use as much sugar as is needed to give them the right taste and texture.

If you believe that a teaspoon of sugar is intrinsically harmful, any cookery book will terrify you, even Mrs Beeton’s. ‘Hiding’ ingredients is what chefs do. They are the sellers of ‘empty calories’, the ‘spikers’ of food, the ones who add the ‘added sugar’. Bread is supposed to have a bit of sugar in it. It doesn’t suddenly become a crime when Tesco does it. Everybody, please, calm down.

Jamie Oliver may truly believe that sugar is evil. He may genuinely think that it is dangerous to eat more than seven teaspoons of sugar a day. But if he took his beliefs to their logical conclusion as a restaurateur he would have to become a full-time television presenter to make a living because he would have no restaurant business left. Surely nobody wants that.

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