Photo: Sweets from grace a Flickr Photostream

A couple of weeks ago Sasha Scambler wrote on this blog about public health interest in digital devices and the launch of a free ‘sugar app’ in the UK in time for the season of new resolutions. The app uses a smartphone camera to read barcodes and then declares how many ‘sugar cubes’ of added sugar can be found in the product. It is being widely promoted as part of the Change4Life campaign by Public Health England. Sasha has already elaborated on the risk that this ‘appy’ approach to public health will worsen inequalities, but I want here to focus again on the sugar issue in particular because I think its assumption that parents can control of the flow of sugar to their children is neither particularly helpful nor particularly true.

I started writing this having seen Room at the cinema last week. For those who haven’t come across it, this is a film adaptation of a book by Emma Donaghue [SPOILER ALERT] in which a woman is imprisoned in a small, soundproofed shed in a suburban backyard. Having fallen pregnant, she brings up her child isolated from the world but close to her, hiding him in the wardrobe every night to stop him seeing her abuse. You might think that sugar was the least of her worries. But the film shows Jack and his mother (Ma) carefully brushing their teeth, recounting how, in despair in the early months of her captivity, Ma had given up on this routine and since developed painful cavities. In fact part way through the film one of her rotten teeth comes out (much to her relief). The film has its own powerful public health messages.

Though the overall premise of the film is extreme, the narrative focus is placed much more on processes and practices of parenting rather than sexual exploitation. The way in which the actor Brie Larson is consistently referred to as Ma, rather than her given name Joy, throughout the film, underscores this emphasis on parenting. The film repeatedly raises the issue of whether (or how) Jack is harmed by living his first five years in what a Guardian reviewer called this ‘satanic Eden’. In the story, this question is voiced by an array of concerned others after Jack and Ma escape, including psychologists and chat show hosts, and Ma herself. It has also preoccupied reviewers (though one more critical feminist response regretted that being a successful mother in this situation is possible only as Ma sets aside and conceals her own suffering and experience.) What stood out for me however is how far Ma’s care for Jack is repeatedly portrayed through her efforts to keep Jack physically fit. Not only by the teeth brushing, but other familiar practices of healthy living: for example exercise through games like ‘Track’ and ‘Phys Ed’ involving strategies to get Jack to move around, and efforts to get him to eat green beans and take vitamins. The film dramatizes our preoccupations about good parenting, and especially maternal responsibility for our children’s health.

But even in their shared prison, the outside world intrudes on the relationship between Jack and Ma. She is shown strictly rationing television and making choices about the food she’ll request, but such requests are often ignored. Old Nick, their captor, not only rapes and jails her but infuriates her by offering Jack candy to lure him out of the wardrobe. Once they are out of Room, they start a painful process of separation, and his relationships with others are narrated through sweet treats: he’s offered pancakes and syrup by his psychologist, ice cream by his grandmother, and sugary cereal by his step-grandfather. Meanwhile Jack holds onto Ma’s tooth as a way of feeling connected to her, with the image of him sucking a rotten tooth making us confront our ambivalence about the very closeness of his relationship with his mother

Even complete separation from the outside world, through imprisonment does not take away the close connection between childhood and sweet stuff, and this is despite Ma’s best efforts, in a situation over which she has more control of what Jack can and cannot eat. Sugar is constantly offered to our children: from the sugar syrup used by doctors to ‘sooth’ my newborn son after painful procedures in his early hours and weeks, to chocolates handed out by supermarket Santas and lollipops from family and friends.

With the Sugar Smart app parents are yet again being set up as guardians of their children’s health, standing between them and the rest of the world. But the need for the app comes not from people’s ignorance, but the potential for surprise. It’s not that people are learning something new about the sugar content of sweets or biscuits. It’s that the app can reveal sugar in any number of processed goods, including ready-made lasagna or soup, fruit drinks, and even low fat yoghurts and wholemeal bread where they might reasonably not expect it. ‘The problem is that sugar is often lurking in our kids food and drink’ says their website (my emphasis). The focus on ‘hidden sugar’ owes much to important campaigns by groups like Action of Sugar, and may yet be addressed through other measures like a ‘tax.’ But to me the sugar app dodges the ways in which our whole culture makes childhood sweet.

Can you keep a child healthy in a metaphorical locked room? The film says you can, sort of. But mothering is not done in isolation. Food and drink manufacturers, teachers, doctors and other family members all have a part to play in reducing sugar intake but for the moment parents are asked to act, in campaigns that make little attempt to address the commercial interests behind high (and low) sugar products.