Pete Martin: A sugar rush to the grave

The average Scottish male consumes 50,000 calories a year more than required. Picture: PA
The average Scottish male consumes 50,000 calories a year more than required. Picture: PA
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Scots appear to be more addicted than our near neighbours to low cost, low nutrition, sweet food, and it’s killing us, after rotting our teeth and giving us diabetes, writes Pete Martin

When I first started working in advertising in the 1980s, three classic “facts” were trotted out by marketing folk to highlight how different Scottish consumers were from their English counterparts.

The first was that, as a nation, we ate over 50 per cent of the UK’s annual supply of Heinz tinned macaroni cheese. Bizarre, but true. Since Scotland only represented around 10 per cent of the UK, Scottish housewives massively “over-indexed” for serving up pale, gloopy, vaguely cheesy carbohydrate out of a can. As an equally pale Scottish wean, you were five times more likely to have Heinz macaroni cheese for your tea than an English kid. Your own experience of growing up in Scotland may well verify the statistic and, truth to tell, I was rather fond of the stuff myself.

The second “fact” was that Scottish attitudes to money were different. The nation was averse to borrowing in general and credit cards in particular. According to marketing folk-lore, junk mail pleas to apply for easy money would fall on fallow Scottish door mats.

However, as the 1980s progressed and consumerism advanced, our Presbyterian probity softened. With the coming of store cards, we perhaps mistook plastic payment for traditional “tick” in a friendly local shop and began to owe “loadsamoney” like the rest of Thatcher’s Britain. Fast-forward 30 years and we’d so loosened the stays of prudence that upright Scots like Fred Goodwin and Tom McKillop could just about sink one of the world’s biggest banks with feckless financing.

But the biggest way in which Scotland was said to be different from England was that we ate a remarkable amount of sweets and biscuits. This was reflected in the fact that, in 1972, 44 per cent of Scots over the age of 16 had lost all of their natural teeth. That’s an astonishing statistic – nearly half of all Scottish adults had falsers. Perhaps this explains some of the strange, tongue-in-palate “shhh” sounds which still feature in urban accents in Scotland’s poorest areas today. Children must have learned to speak listening to parents with ill-fitting dentures.

The dental health of Scotland has improved steadily over the years. In the 2011 Scottish Health Survey, 73 per cent of Scots had 20 natural teeth or more. However, one in eight Scots still have no teeth – double the figure for England.

For hundreds of years – since Scotland became the dropping-off point for sugar from the West Indies in the late 17th century and our west coast became the centre for sugar processing – Scots have been fairly addicted to this white powder. And there is some evidence that sugar is addictive. A French researcher, Serge Ahmed of the Institute of Neurodegenerative Disease in Bordeaux, conducted an experiment in which rats had a choice of sugar or cocaine: 94 per cent preferred sugar.

Today, most of us would like to eat more healthily. We know we should eat more fruit and veg, and be careful with high-calorie foods. Yet much of the nutrient-free calories we consume is hidden as added in pre-packed foods, ready-made sauces and TV dinners. It’s estimated this could amount to as much as a kilogram a week, equivalent to about 240 spoonfuls of table sugar. It’s often in the form of fructose, which makes you think it might be something to do with fruit. Usually it’s high fructose corn syrup, a cheap industrial form of sugar invented in the late 1950s. More confusingly for consumers, many seemingly “healthy” low fat foods merely swap fat for sugar. So, they are often no less calorific than the full-fat versions.

The inarguable issue is that, if you take in more calories than you burn through general living and exercise, your body stores it as fat. However, there is increasing evidence that the chemistry of refined sugars impacts our bodies differently from other foodstuffs.

A long-term study across 175 countries showed that, for every additional 150 calories of sugar consumed, there was an 11-fold increase in Type 2 diabetes – regardless of body weight and physical activity. There is also new evidence from Edinburgh and Aberdeen Universities linking high energy foods and sugary drinks with bowel cancer.

The Scots traditional fondness for sweet foods may also explain why our average calorific intake is higher than England’s – about 80 extra calories a day. That’s roughly equivalent to one digestive biscuit a day. That doesn’t seem much at all until you realise that it helps you put on 1kg a year. (365 digestive biscuits weight around 5.5kg – and contains roughly 1kg of sugar and 1.2kg of fat.)

Putting on couple of pounds a year doesn’t seem much either. But, in just seven years, you’re a stone heavier. So you can see how even the skinny youth in a track suit can turn into a sickly man in a fat suit by his mid-forties – putting on four stones of weight in less than 30 years.

What surprises many commentators is how a country so rich in natural produce can produce a population with such an unhealthy attitude to food. They see fine Scottish produce – the fabulous seafood from our coasts, lochs and rivers – being shipped out to the continent while the average Scot waddles round the hypermarket picking up cardboard food in plastic packets, and confess themselves baffled.

Ordinary folk in other European countries with similar “peasant cuisines” to Scotland eat better than we do. The difference may be that Scotland became urbanised early in the industrial revolution. Leaving the countryside, the poor crowded into Glasgow’s slums with dire consequences for their health. Half of the folk were dead by the age of 34, many not making it out of infancy.

Food choices remain a socioeconomic issue. But maybe – like our modern attitude to credit – we’ve become “penny wise and pound foolish”. Confectionery alone now represents 10 per cent of food spending, and the average Scottish male consumes 50,000 calories a year more than required. We could afford to eat less and eat better.

So, perhaps, it’s time to get back to the real traditional Scottish diet, filling foods padded out with grains, pulses and vegetables: the porridge, soups and savoury “puddins” of yesteryear.

Along with apparent cost though, lack of time is often cited as a key obstacle to eating a more healthy diet. But fear of cooking may be a resonant reason. You may remember the classic TV commercial for Heinz macaroni cheese. In the home economics class at school, a hapless girl fails to make a decent dish. Examining the burnt offering, the teacher exclaims “Ach Maggie!”, as if she were Miss Jean Brodie admonishing one of her “gerls”. As we used to say back in school, she got a pure beamer. So, the girl sneaks a tin of macaroni cheese into next week’s class – et voila, culinary success and public approbation. The message was clear: any kind of home cooking was a recipe for humiliation. Convenience foods were the way forward.

In the short term, our addiction to low cost, off-the-peg food is unlikely to change. But, as a study by the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen recently showed, there’s wild variability in the “healthiness” of convenience foods. So here’s a challenge for you on your weekly trip to the supermarket.

Check the food label on the back of any packet or jar you pick up. You’re looking for anything that has less than 5 per cent sugar: that’s under 5g sugar per 100g. If you’re easily able to fill your basket with all your usual purchases, well, I’ll be sugar-shocked.