Coca-Cola: Where The War On Christmas Meets The War On Sugar

Coca Cola Christmas Truck - 2

The solution to the obesity crisis lies with adults and parents, not the nanny state

What happens when the War on Christmas meets the War on Sugar?

We are about to find out. On 17 December, the Coca-Cola Christmas Truck (from the famous television commercials) will roll into Leicester on the final stop of its UK tour, bringing holiday refreshment to boys and girls in the Midlands. A lovely festive occasion, you might think.

Wrong. According to the League of Virtue-Signalling Health Nuts*, the Coca-Cola Christmas Truck is a menace, bringing nothing but dental cavities and Type II diabetes to the hapless people of Leicester – innocent and impressionable souls who have no option but to ceaselessly guzzle from any can of carbonated toxicity placed within arm’s reach. Yes, Evil Santa is on his way to waterboard your kids with unwanted soda.

Leading the moralising charge against Coca-Cola is Keith Vaz, who thinks that sugary drinks belong in a locked cupboard under the sink, next to household bleach and drain cleaner. From the BBC:

Keith Vaz insists he does not want to be a “killjoy”, but said the truck would send the wrong message in a city where Type 2 diabetes is rising and a third of children have tooth decay.

He predicts people will protest if the truck does come to the city.

[..] “I know people like special things happening at Christmas, but Coca-Cola are coming to promote their product and in each can of Coke there are seven teaspoons of sugar,” he said.

Meet sugar, the new asbestos.

Of course Keith Vaz has form when it comes to demonising Coca-Cola. The MP for Leicester East also protested loudly against the company’s sponsorship of the London Eye, on the basis that the presence of a red-hued circle on the London skyline would instantly hypnotise Londoners into a soda-consuming trance. Really, it’s beyond parody.

This is just the latest in a long line of attempts to get the already over-active British nanny state to regulate such things as how much sugar we consume, how and where we enjoy tobacco, when we are allowed to gamble and even when we can shop.

Just last month, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver gave evidence to a parliamentary health committee and called for a “sugar tax” to stop all of us uneducated plebs from getting too carried away with the Mars bars and sugary beverages (Oliver himself only uses Moral Sugar in his recipes and chain restaurants, naturally).

But an ostentatious concern for public health is only part of the story. Leicester also hosts one of Europe’s latest Diwali celebrations, where it is traditional to hand out – you guessed it – Indian sweets. Unsurprisingly, nobody is seeking to cancel Diwali or launching a public campaign aimed at Hindus, encouraging them to swap the gulab jamun for carrot sticks – because Diwali is not a global corporation, and many of the sweets are home made.

No, the protests against the Coca-Cola Christmas truck are sadly just another case of left-wing virtue-signalling. Keith Vaz and most of the protesters know deep down that the only way to tackle the obesity crisis is for adults and parents to exercise greater responsibility over what they feed themselves and their children, sometimes facilitated by better and more accessible education. But that’s just too dull, so instead they have to invent the menace of the Great American Corporate Bogeyman coming to give our children diabetes as yet another excuse to suck the joy out of life.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a glass or two of Coca-Cola, especially at Christmas. What’s really dangerous is treating grown adults and teenagers like mindless lemmings liable to developing a soda addiction at the mere sight of a big red truck. But because people like Keith Vaz derive their power and authority from presuming to tell us how to behave, we can only expect more such finger-wagging, faux-outraged protests in the future.

Maybe better to send the Coca-Cola Christmas Armoured Personnel Carrier to Leicester in place of the truck this year, just in case things turn ugly.

* Not (yet) a real organisation.

Coca Cola Christmas Truck

First published at Conservatives for Liberty

Conservatives for Liberty are holding a lobby evening on Wednesday
25th November called Forgive us our Trespasses: The moral case for
choice and responsibility. This event gives you the opportunity to
hear from a number of MPs about why they believe in individual choice,
and to ask them any pressing questions you may have.

The evening will focus on freedom of choice and the belief that adults
should be free to weigh pleasure and risk and decide for themselves
when it comes to products such as cigarettes, e-cigarettes, alcohol,
and fatty or sugary foods. You can read more about the evening here.

If you want to attend, you will need to RSVP by emailing
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In the spirit of freedom of choice, and in true Conservatives for
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Naked Hypocrisy, Ctd.

Of the various things written in the aftermath of TV chef Jamie Oliver’s recent comments about nutrition and cooking habits among poor people and families in Britain, I eventually found perhaps the most reasoned analysis at The Telegraph.

Joanna Blythman writes:

I make a point of trading up with food, buying good quality unprocessed ingredients, and often pay with a debit card. Occasionally, when the bill comes to more than I’d expect, I make a mental note to pay more attention to prices, but a little overspend isn’t a disaster; I won’t end up down the pawnshop.

So how humbling it was to see that that most customers in this store had no such security. These were people – it’s generally women who shoulder the responsibility for the family food spend – who always paid in cash, often a mixture of notes, coins, tokens and vouchers, which they meticulously counted out, sometimes betraying a slight anxiety that there wouldn’t be quite enough. They clearly budgeted by the day, not the week. As for the luxury of stocking up on things that might come in handy at some point, forget it. Their finances were on a knife-edge, and food outlay was a critical factor.

I could have given them a sanctimonious little lecture about spending their money more wisely – in many cases, pet food was arguably the most nutritious item in their trolleys, amid a pile of processed junk – but it would have been monstrously insensitive to do so. If you’re trying really hard to eke out your money, it seems cheaper, and it’s the line of least resistance, to fill everyone up on cheap carbs and low-grade processed meat. And yet, there were nearly always a couple of products in the line-up – some apples on promotion, or clementines, perhaps – that showed a touching aspiration to eat better.

This is exactly the point that I was trying to make in my own comments yesterday. It is easy to make smug and sanctimonious throwaway remarks about how people should take an axe to their broadband internet subscriptions or mobile phone contracts (as if most of us could realistically imagine living without either) before deigning to eat a cheap, unhealthy microwave meal, and many commenters seem to have fallen into precisely this trap.\

Like me, Blythman also gives Oliver credit where credit is due:

To be fair to Oliver, though, his thoughts are more nuanced than the provocative headlines might suggest. If he manages to show graphically how some of the poorest people are routinely ripped off by companies selling products that seem cheap, but that are actually rotten value for money, then more power to his elbow.

Be under no illusion, our large food retailers and manufacturers are making a mint from selling poor people over-packaged, nutrient-light, additive-dense food products, while trumpeting how they are helping them make ends meet.

And if Oliver can help people see how, by buying unprocessed raw ingredients, and cooking more, rather than relying on the sweepings from the manufacturer’s floor, they can eat better for the same, or less money, then that will be a sterling service to the nation.

This is an important area that I somewhat overlooked when I wrote my initial reaction to Oliver’s comments yesterday. In that piece I focused on the three aspects of food preparation knowledge, available spare time and social norms that go into determining what ends up on the family dining table (or, let’s be realistic, our laps while we sit and watch television). But supermarkets and food manufacturers cannot entirely escape censure for their part in making it harder for consumers to choose healthy options through their use of awkward quantity packaging and opaque pricing special offers.

Whether the answer lies with a government enquiry, more heavy-handed regulation of the food retail industry and active subsidisation of local markets and other initiatives, as Blythman seems to advocate, is another question entirely. Readers can probably anticipate my immediate reaction to the idea of another government enquiry and the further empowerment of our controlling, paternalistic government. But yet she does raise some valid points, and so I will give her the last word.

This sums up perfectly the issue that Jamie Oliver struggled to articulate in his controversial comments:

So what Oliver should address is how, when all the pressures in our society conspire to woo people away from scratch cooking of good-quality raw materials onto a convenience food diet, we can help them to resist.

Cooking is to food what books are to literacy: it allows us to become the controllers of our personal food destiny. Poor or rich, we’re all just suckers for processed food without it.

Amen to that.

Naked Hypocrisy?

Jamie Oliver is, generally speaking, a great force for good in British society.

His campaign to coax, cajole or bully local authorities into serving more nutritious school meals was a great example of non-government-inspired citizen activism (and Lord knows we need more of that in today’s Britain, where nearly everyone instinctively turns to the government for solutions to everything), and his television shows (starting with The Naked Chef) and books helped to breathe a breath of fresh air into what at the time was a somewhat stale genre.

But today, Oliver seems to be in the press for less auspicious reasons – namely, his holding forth on the problem of poor nutrition and overconsumption of junk food among the poorer people and families in society. The Telegraph reports:

The celebrity chef, who was enlisted by the Labour Government to improve the quality of school meals, has now rounded on the British working class diet.

Oliver recalled being appalled by the diet of a British family who lived on a diet of junk food, but still had the money for consumer goods.

“You might remember that scene in Ministry Of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive TV. It just didn’t weigh up,” he said.

“The fascinating thing for me is that seven times out of 10, the poorest families in this country choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families. The ready meals, the convenience foods.”

Oliver contrasts this observation with his experience of “economically deprived” people in other countries, such as Italy, where people apparently still enjoy a varied, healthy diet despite their circumstances. He seems bemused by this contradiction (apparently choosing to overlook such factors as different attitudes to work/life balance and family life between the UK and the southern European nations that he lauds).

All you need to make a delicious, nutritious family meal
All you need to make a delicious, nutritious family meal

Indeed, the Telegraph aludes to this very point when they quote Oliver:

“I meet people who say, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like.’ I just want to hug them and teleport them to the Sicilian street cleaner who has 25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence, and knocks out the most amazing pasta,” said Oliver, 38, whose own wealth is estimated at £150 million.

Quite.

While I see this as merely a somewhat misguided intervention by Oliver – borne of the fact that his knowledge of good food and nutrition probably vastly outstrips his knowledge of the economic and social forces at work that do so much to determine family eating habits – Mic Wright, also writing in The Telegraph, takes a somewhat dimmer view:

Oliver comes from the same school of thinking as the most banal of modern politicians. He sees simple solutions where there are complex problems. He believes that the state can fix everything and that right-thinking men like him should have more power to make the working class see the error of their ways.

And, like the best part-time proselytisers, he assures us that he knows the pain of the poor: “I’m not judgmental but I’ve spent a lot of time in poor communities and I find it quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty.” Popping in to film a TV programme or capitalise on a photo opportunity is not experiencing poverty. It is, as the Sex Pistols sang about trips to East Berlin, a holiday in someone else’s misery.

Fair point, to a degree. Oliver has spent a lot of on-screen time talking to and interacting with people scraping by on the lower end of the income scale – I always think of the moving scenes in “Jamie’s America” where he cooked with a young Hispanic Los Angeles native, Rigo, empathised with his troubled upbringing and learned to cook some decent Mexican food – but this does not make him an expert on balancing the budget or managing the schedule of a poorer family, day-in and day-out.

When you “spen[d] a lot of time in poor communities” filming a TV cooking show, you generally aren’t there for the weekly or daily grocery shop, which may often come at the end of a backbreaking day of hard work, to be followed by an evening looking after a young family. You may not appreciate the limited culinary options available to the family without a car or easy access to public transportation, whose only local option is a small convenience store specialising in heavily processed junk food and ready meals at the expense of fresh fruit and vegetables.

But the kicker for me was this excerpt and analysis of Oliver’s thoughts, this time from The Guardian:

“One of the other things we look at in the series is going to your local market, which is cheaper anyway, but also they don’t dictate size,” Oliver said. “From a supermarket you’re going to buy a 200g bag of this or a 400g pack of that. If you’re going past a market, you can just grab 10 mange tout for dinner that night, and you don’t waste anything.”

He also urged people to look overseas to learn how to eat well on a limited budget. “Some of the most inspirational food in the world comes from areas where people are financially challenged. The flavour comes from a cheap cut of meat, or something that’s slow-cooked, or an amazing texture’s been made out of leftover stale bread,” said Oliver, who was promoting his new Channel 4 series, Jamie’s Money Saving Meals.

“I meet people who say, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like.’ I just want to hug them and teleport them to the Sicilian street cleaner who has 25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence, and knocks out the most amazing pasta. You go to Italy or Spain and they eat well on not much money. We’ve missed out on that in Britain, somehow.”

Right. The friendly local farmer’s market that we all have time to browse through on our way home from work or picking the kids up from school. And the slow-cooked meals that we can lovingly tend to all day while we aren’t out earning a living.

This is the crux of my problem with Jamie Oliver, much as I admire him and consume his TV shows and some of his recipe books – he is able to envision eating well on a budget only as himself, with his vast knowledge of how to source fresh ingredients and combine them in tasty ways, and with his reserves of free time to purchase these ingredients and make these healthy meals. It is this same lack of self-awareness that enables him to publish a book called “Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals”, a volume full of wonderful recipes but whose realistic time to make (once you have factored in the preparation, cooking time for a non-professional, and cleanup) stretches into the hours, not the promised minutes.

That is not to say that Jamie Oliver’s intervention is unhelpful. It is true that it can often be cheaper to bulk buy goods such as rice and pasta, and source fresh meat, fruit and vegetables, than it is to subsist on a diet of ready meals and fast food. If you have the knowledge, time and inclination to do so.

Oliver’s new television show, “Jamie’s Money Saving Meals”, will certainly help to tackle the knowledge part of the equation. But until he appreciates that the equally important countervailing forces of time and deeply ingrained social factors remain stacked against the poor, he will sadly continue to be frustrated in his efforts.