The high-sugar diets of children may come to be viewed like smoking in Victorian schools, writes Jane Bradley.
In 1889, a Scottish school board made a controversial and “progressive” decision. It banned children from smoking on or around school premises.
In a statement printed in the Dundee Courier in December of that year, headmaster Robert Robb told how Blairgowrie School Board had taken the unprecedented step of stopping children from smoking at school in a bid to stamp out the practice more generally among the school children of the day.
“While opinions differ as to the effect of smoking on adults, there is no difference of opinion as to the effect of smoking on the young,” he wrote, adding: “It is universally condemned as altogether hurtful, both mentally and physically and as calculated to have grave effects on future generations.”
Yet, despite the fact that scientific research seemed to suggest that youngsters should not really indulge in tobacco, the idea still caused an outcry among the general population. Children should stop smoking? What a concept. Why stop their fun? Of course, we can look back at this and laugh, with the benefit of hindsight and over a century of health research. Progressive? Novel? The idea that any state authority would not condemn smoking on school premises is unthinkable in modern times.
We might as well let children drink half a pint of gin a day, or rub alcohol on babies’ gums to help them sleep. Insanity! But, of course, the former was common just 100 years earlier in the 1700s and the latter right up until our parents were children. What is acknowledged now as harmful was, until relatively recently, a perfectly acceptable part of normal life. This is progress.
And while it is difficult to give up things we love, we should not ignore scientific findings.
Just 20 years ago, alcohol was perhaps seen as merely a social vice, but now its full health risks are beginning to be acknowledged.
People with a propensity for a tipple or two too many were only considered a health risk if their indulgence resulted in them taking a tumble down the stairs, or if it was so extreme that it had an detrimental effect on their relationships, work or family life.
Perhaps it might have been known in some quarters that the most booze-addled of folk were at a higher risk of illnesses such as pancreatitis, but as this often affected only the most extreme end of the drinking population, it was generally ignored. Now, however, alcohol is known to cause a range of illnesses, including raising the risk factor for various cancers and heart disease, prompting chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies to say that when she reaches for a glass of wine she thinks: “Do I want the glass of wine or do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?”
A column I wrote recently about the high levels of sugar in children’s restaurant meals was met online with scorn and derision. Campaign group Against Sugar Tax took to Twitter to express their opposition to my opinion.
“Instead of whining about ‘junk food’, don’t go to those restaurants,” they wrote to me. “Don’t spoil everyone else’s fun!”
It’s funny, but I’m sure, had social media been around in 1889, people would have tweeted something similar to headmaster Mr Robb. Of course, I can see how it might sometimes seem like the ‘fun police’ are out to ban everything. That there is a state-sponsored witch hunt for vices which began with smoking, moved on to alcohol and is now getting its sharp little teeth into sugar.
When I was a child, it was simple: the sweet stuff was only considered to be a problem if you struggled with your weight.
If you were fat, you should probably cut back. If not, away you go. A chocolate Mini Roll at breaktime, a sugary school pudding at lunchtime, followed by an ice cream after school and a couple of chocolate biscuits after dinner wasn’t seen as excessive.
Yet times and social and educational attitudes change. Now, health campaigners have slowly but surely started their push against sugar, especially for children, whose bodies are developing. None of us wants to hear it – who doesn’t love a good chocolate brownie or a can of Coke? But we need to. Just as the Victorian parents of Blairgowrie needed to hear that their children shouldn’t smoke.
There is a theory that sugar can contribute to the growth of tumours. It is undoubtedly a factor in life-altering diseases such as type 2 diabetes. More research still needs to be done, but all factors point to the unpalatable truth that too much sugar is bad for our health.
Yet, like those who supported youngsters being able to smoke 130 years ago, people do not want to face facts over this growing problem. By publicly reporting on these kinds of issues, I am not trying to spoil your fun – just prolong your life.
A study out earlier this week from academic-led research group Action on Sugar found that some lunchtime “meal deals” contained a massive 30 teaspoons of sugar in one lunchtime serving. Even the most staunch pro-sugar campaigners must agree that this cannot be a good thing. Most people would not be aware of the sheer volume of the sweet stuff that a sandwich, a soft drink and chocolate bar can contain.
That’s not to say that sugar, like alcohol, can’t be consumed in moderation by most people. But lunch is not a one-off treat, it is a daily occurrence. We might resent the fun police, but we need to start listening for our own good and that of our children.
Let’s look 100 years into the future and consider how we would view our current dietary choices with the benefit of 22nd century hindsight. And take a leaf out of the book of Blairgowrie’s Mr Robb.