Photo: 'Sugar' from Gunilla G's Flickr Photostream

As social scientists, we can bring a unique perspective to a debate dominated by politicians, ‘food campaigners’, public health and industry.

I don’t know if self-appointed sugar experts Jamie Oliver (TV chef) and George Osbourne (political chancellor) have a lot in common. But one thing they seem to share is that neither of them has ever read ‘Sweetness and Power : the place of sugar in modern history’ by Sidney Mintz. Which is a shame, because even 30 odd years after first publication, it is still the most insightful work on the subject by quite a distance. If they had read it, the recipes for both Jamie’s strident campaign and George’s quirky ‘sugar tax’ might have been improved by a pinch of sociological rigour (ok – that’s the last cooking analogy).

Sugar blog pic low res

Image: Authors own picture

Quite apart from gaining an understanding of the complexities of the colonial history that brought sucrose to the Western world, if they read the book they could also follow the fascinating story of how the consumption of ‘sugary’ foods and drinks migrated through the social and political spectrum. And they would see how we have got to where we are today – a world where what was once a highly-prized and conspicuously consumed luxury of the rich and powerful has become the demonised, cheap, empty calories of the people they vilify as the fat, feckless poor.

Injecting a bit of proper sociology and anthropology into the sugar/obesity debate could also help put the most important aspect of food and behaviour policy at centre stage – the fact that all food and drink consumption exists in a social and cultural context. If we want to understand eating and drinking, we need to ask: what, where, when, who with, how, and why people do what they do. It is only by researching these basic questions that we can begin to construct an overall analysis of the shifting social relations and the dynamics of power that underlie attempts by some groups and institutions to restrict and guide the consumption of others.

Simply adding up the numbers and trying to use taxes to “nudge” (as they say) the behaviour of those with ‘bad habits’ might be an acceptable way of looking at the world for politicians, public health people and TV chefs – but it is way too crude for social scientists. Our disciplines have a lot of theoretical and analytical expertise which can be brought into play here and, by taking a ‘Mintzian’ perspective we have the potential to shed some light on some key ‘sugar tax’ issues and questions. There are many, but here are my top three:-

Social theory and the regulation of diet:

I remember one of my sociology lecturers in the 1970’s (presumably a Foucauldian Marxist) explaining the discipline to a room full of first years in roughly these words: “Sociology is how we explain how some sets of people manage to force other sets of people to do things.” This perspective on attempts to use the fiscal system to change diet is indeed a very interesting one. The nature and exercise of social control is plainly at the heart of recent events and an interesting discussion of their theoretical underpinning can be found (and joined) at the Sociology Lens blog. Here you will find sociological folk discussing whether public health inspired food taxes constitute evidence of a ‘disciplinary society’ or a ‘society of control’.

The sociology of public health:

One of the most common bar-room and bus-stop criticisms of health promotion messages is “Now they’re saying that XYZ is bad for you, but a few years ago it was all about ABC”. Look no further than the sugar controversy for a classic example. Throughout the last forty years or so, there has been a lot of hectoring and general banging on in the public health world about dietary fat and cholesterol. One consequence of this ostensibly ‘evidence-based’ demonisation of lipids was that the mono-focal world of health promotion seemed to take a collective decision to ignore carbo-hydrates, including sugar. Lots has been written and said about the overall miscarriage of justice that overtook butter and bacon, but all social scientists with an interest in how these things happen should familiarise themselves with the story of John Yudkin. He was a nutritionist who, in the early 1970’s, pointed an accusing finger at sugar in his book Pure, White and Deadly. And he was consequently vilified and professionally marginalised by his colleagues and the academic system. His treatment wasn’t quite as bad as that meted out to Turing… but isn’t he now due a retrospective pardon?

Culturally and politically, what is going on?

The first question to ponder here is: “Is George’s ‘sugar tax’ actually a sugar tax?” A simple question can flush out a simple answer. Question: “How much tax will be levied on a bag of sugar?” Answer: “None”. Because the proposed new fiscal regulation is, of course, a tax on one particular niche presentation of sugar – what we Brits call ‘sugary drinks’ (or ‘fizzy pop’ if you’re really retro) and the Americans refer to, somewhat less accurately, as ‘soda’. But not all sugary drinks are covered. A milky drink can be as sugary as you like, as can a fruit juice, or the ‘freak-shakes’ that trendy young Londoners are queuing round the corner for. Solid sugar as a constituent of cakes, icing, chocolate, biscuits, confectionery and as just sugar is similarly unaffected. Honey? Tax-free.

So why the narrow focus?

The Public Health answer is that statistics show that the fattest people in society (on a mean basis these are, apparently, youngsters from poor neighbourhoods) get a significant percentage of their calories from fizzy pop. They aren’t the only consumers of calorific soda, of course, and there has been some jokey outrage expressed in the twittershpere by middle class Gin and Tonic drinkers whose favourite tipple looks set to suffer some collateral damage from George’s tax missile aimed at their working class neighbours.

On that kind of front, one of the odd things (or not so odd things?) about the sugary drink tax is that it is so narrowly targeted. If it were true that “obesity is the new smoking” we might expect the tax system to react to sugar in the same way as it does tobacco. But if that were so, then a packet of sugar would indeed be taxed, as would cakes, chocolate bars and honey. Or, to put it the other way round, if tobacco was taxed like sugar, then the posh cigars at George’s club would be exempt while the low-grade ‘tabs’ smoked on working class estates would net quite a few quid for the tax man.

So why hammer the poor on sugar? Well, it seems that the ruling classes sometimes move in apparently mysterious (but usually explicable) ways. Time to go back to Foucault. And Marx. Or, indeed, Mintz.