A new report from the Obesity Health Alliance says children are eating the equivalent of five doughnuts a day in “hidden sugars”. This does not surprise me. I was trying to buy my daughter a bottle of “flavoured water” recently, because I thought it might have just a touch of sugar to leaven the essentially boring experience of drinking water. As it was called Touch of Fruit, this was not an unreasonable assumption.
But just in case Volvic, a company associated with pure spring water, was trying to pull a fast one, I decided to do a check. There were 4.6gm of sugar per 100ml. So that was clear. Except that it wasn’t. The bottle was 50cl. Now I had to work out how to convert millilitres into centilitres. Which, shamefully, I couldn’t quite remember how to do. Neither could my 10-year-old. And what does 4.6gm of sugar look like?
For further information, I looked at a second column, which explained that there were 11.5gm of sugar per “serving”. At this point, most people would probably just have sighed and just bought the drink, but with considerable effort I made a comparison. There was 50cl in the bottle, which, it finally occurred to me, converted to 500ml. So there was 23gm of sugar in this bottle. A quick Google search revealed that a teaspoon is about 4g. So there were nearly six teaspoons of sugar in the bottle. Six.
The point of this column isn’t to deride the self-evident evils of excess sugar. It’s the unashamedness of the obfuscation that got to me. It would have been so easy for Volvic to make the amount of sugar explicit — even in the teeny-tiny writing it used. And it seems to have found as many ways as it can of obscuring the information to market a healthy-looking beverage. At least when you have a can of Coke, you know you’re supping with the devil. I said to my daughter, “You have to understand that global corporations are trying to deceive you all the time.”
I love the scene in the film Falling Down when the anti-hero, William Foster, waving a sub-machine gun, orders a double-whammy burger with cheese in a fast-food joint and is given a sorry-looking hamburger that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the big, juicy burger in the photo above the counter.
Foster went nuts. He felt he had a right to be served the burger shown in the photo. And I wanted a flav-oured bottle of water, from a company that essentially sells water, that didn’t contain nearly the whole daily recommended intake of sugar for a 10-year-old in a bottle with a healthy looking strawberry on it, containing what looked like water.
This isn’t just capitalism. This is human nature writ large. “Mendacity is a system that we live in,” says the protagonist of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. A state-run economy would just throw up different kinds of lies. But do we teach this in our schools? Is there a module for children called How Mass Society Works? There is not. Despite being perhaps the key fact of modern life, it is “too political”.
Some things are so ubiquitous you fail to notice them anymore. Fake news is the phrase of the year. But fake information has long underpinned our society. We are bringing up our children in a world of half-truth and then telling them to be honest. No wonder they are confused.
It is a bad joke. We have powerful forces rotting our children’s moral framework faster than six teaspoons of sugar can rot their teeth. Perhaps the answer is to get myself a machine gun. But I know it wouldn’t look nearly as cool, or be half as effective, as the one in the picture. And the real problem is, I wouldn’t know who to point it at.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Tim Lott is a journalist and author. His latest book is Under the Same Stars.