Saturday, 11 August 2018

Beware the dangerous Battenberg...

Hot on the heels of their blueberry muffin hidden sugar shock survey back in March of this year, Action on Sugar are back with a new survey, this time with the added gloss of scientific authority through publication in the open access journal, BMJ Open. The study is a survey conducted in 2016 of the sugar content of 381 cakes and 481 biscuits available in 9 main UK supermarkets, and gathered the sugar and energy content from packaging and labelling with the aim of exploring variations across products. The findings, perhaps not surprisingly, were that cakes and biscuits contain quite a lot of sugar, with 97% of cakes and 74% warranting a 'red' traffic light label for sugar content. But as with the blueberry muffin story, the aim is not really to show that cakes and biscuits are sugary, but to highlight the variation in sugar content between products - a finding which is taken as illustrating that reductions in sugar and energy content are possible but that manufacturers are dragging their feet in doing this.

And because every food story needs an enemy, the paper holds up Battenberg cake as containing the highest average amounts of sugar, while the blueberry muffin is somewhat redeemed from its previous shaming by having the lowest average sugar content among the cakes. The media jumped on the Battenberg story, and the Sunday Times published this graphic (credited to Queen Mary University, which is the institutional home of the four authors):

The graphic uses the familiar measure of the teaspoon to quantify the sugar, but uses 100g portions, even though serving data is also included in the study. In the case of the Battenberg for example, a 50g serving would be up to 7.5 teaspoons, which still equates to a full adult allowance, but is much less headline-grabbing than 15 teaspoons. While the Sunday Times was busy throwing up its hands up in horror at the public health threat posed by Battenberg cake, the Guardian stepped in to protect readers from the "dangerously sugary" real thing with a low sugar alternative that could be made at home. This included making low sugar marzipan using medjool dates and strawberry coulis rather than using jam. While there is certainly much fun to be had in home-baking, it seemed like an awful lot of soulless trouble to go to to shave off a teaspoon or two of sugar from something that's meant to be, well....sugary. 

The BMJ Open study describes its key limitation as having to rely on nutritional information provided by manufacturers. This is not only a not-so-subtle suggestion that manufacturers can't be trusted, but also, it completely overlooks the real problems with this study, which lie in its inability to see cake (and biscuits) as anything other than a collection of nutrients. Within this nutritionist frame, all cakes are the same, or at least, all Battenbergs or all brownies are the same. Indeed, the conclusion that reformulation is possible is founded on the conviction that different brands of the same type of cake are fundamentally the same thing, with some just more responsibly formulated than others. But we all know that this isn't the case - not all chocolate cakes, or all Battenberg cakes, are the same, with taste and texture depending on how it is constituted and manufactured; and purchasing is governed by cost, but also by preference or occasion - someone might buy a rich, expensive cake for a special occasion, but something less expensive as a more mundane treat. When we do this, we know that those two products are not the same and balance the different factors accordingly; the failure of the authors to see this shows a spectacular dislocation from the lived experience of food. 

And following on from this, the study completely overlooks the affective dimensions of cake. When I saw the Battenberg story, and all of the media images of this yellow and pink confection, I flashed immediately back to my Nana's dining room table at tea time in the 1970's. Cake has meanings far beyond its specific nutrients; in this case, it was a dramatic taste-memory full of grandparental love, delicious treats and happy days. I know that this attaching of emotions to sugary foods is exactly the kind of thing that anti-sugar campaigns object to, and we are constantly being urged to find new ways to share birthdays, celebrate successes or find consolation, but the reduction of food to an assemblage of nutrients is to completely ignore the fact that (all) food is irretrievably social and the meanings it bears can never be contained in the 'nutritional information' label. I find it hard to take dietary advice seriously when it comes from a position of such utter dislocation from food and eating. 

I don't eat shop-bought cakes, not because I'm horrified by their sugar content, but because I'm a vegan, which excludes pretty much all supermarket cakes and biscuits; ultimately, I think that the killing and exploitation of animals to make those products is far more disturbing than their sugar content. (This is a blog for another day, since the derogation of veganism is a staple of the low-carb, high-fat diets in which many prominent anti-sugar activists are heavily invested). But regardless of whether I eat those products or not, I am convinced that it is necessary to push back against this kind of reductive categorisation of (particular) foods and ingredients as a threat to health. If the authors of the report are right, and those particular products are to blame for both obesity and the health problems commonly associated with it in ways that constitute an urgent public health crisis, then it is hard to see how determinedly reading the labels of over 800 products that people already know to be sugary can intervene meaningfully in that. If they're wrong, then the splashing of 'hidden sugar shock' stories like this across the media constitutes a troubling distraction from broader questions about food quality, accessibility and affordability in contemporary society, and disregards the profound social significance of food, including cakes and biscuits, and the ways in which it becomes meaningful to people in complex and unpredictable ways. 

So hands off the Battenberg. Nana knew best. 

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