Sugar is public enemy number one right now, and with good reason. We all know that too much of it, like its addictive but government-controlled buddies alcohol, nicotine and dopamine can cause long term damage to your health. A diet too high in sugar can cause diabetes leading to amputations, obesity leading to heart disease, and dental deterioration leading to premature extractions.
Jamie Oliver's at times gritty documentary, Sugar Rush, highlighted these problems and at the same time targeted the processed food and fizzy drinks industries that he believes are the main culprits in foisting unnecessary sugar on the nation. He is campaigning for a 7% fizzy drinks tax, with the money levied going towards nutritional education, something I wholeheartedly support. But what about other sugar-laden, addictive products? Shouldn't they be subject to the same tax too? It's easy to attack the evil Coca-Cola corporation, but when it comes to something more homegrown such as our national obsession with cake, are we turning a blind eye?
There is a segment in Jamie's documentary where he is watching an adbreak in the prime time family show, The X Factor. During the break there is an ad for Coca-Cola, and then one for McDonald's. Jamie, quite rightly, questions whether this is appropriate advertising for a family programme. Exposing children to advertising for nutritionally poor food cannot be in the long term interest of the child or the country's healthcare system. Ironically, elsewhere on prime time television there is another family programme, but instead of 30 second segments in the ad break, the entire one hour programme is a celebration of sugary food with zero nutritional value. Every year the 12 contestants and its presenters are admired for devising creative ways of processing 150kg of sugar into edible food. With an audience of 12.3 million, 3 million higher than X Factor's, it is watched by a quarter of the UK population. It is called The Great British Bake Off.
The Great British Bake Off is a television phenomenon. Its arrival on our screens every year causes hysteria in the media and amongst its fans. It has made celebrities of its contestants and national treasures of its presenters but more than that, it has firmly established our country's cake culture. The fact that 'cake' is now the most searched for term on the BBC Food website, that John Lewis is reporting a massive rise in sales of baking equipment, and more baking-related start-ups are launching than ever shows that GBBO's influence is not passive. With the baking industry now worth over £3.4 billion, the sweet stuff is literally fuelling the economy. A Daily Telegraph article from 2013 that you can find here goes into great detail about the commercial impact of GBBO, from the increase in baking book sales, to the number of people taking baking lessons and even the supposed benefit to our mental health! Ultimately what it boils down to is that the British are making more cakes than ever.
Why does this matter? Well if more cake is being made, then more cake is being consumed and in the light of the campaign against unnecessary sugar, can this be a good thing? Why do we seem so carefree about cake, and give it a prime time slot on national TV without accepting how at odds this is with the concerns of healthcare professionals and policy makers? Why do we see that slice of cake as being naughty but nice, but at the end of the day more nice than naughty?
As somebody who used to create marketing campaigns for clients including Coke and Fanta I understand the importance of image, and baking still benefits from a wholesome, homely one. Apart from in the film Bugsy Malone, you never see bad guys using cake as a weapon, and you never hear of serial killers icing cupcakes before going on the rampage. Cake is for slicing and sharing, for icing and giving, for lining up on trestle tables to be judged at county shows or for providing a stable base for celebratory candles. Every week an email arrives in my inbox inviting me to share some cake that someone has made or brought back from holiday or baked to celebrate a birthday. If someone placed a pack of duty free cigarettes in the staff kitchen and invited colleagues to help themselves then would it be as acceptable? We can hate tooth-rotting corporate Coca-Cola and its sticky brown syrup because it symbolises brash, capitalist America, but cake? Cake is 'nice'. Cake is homemade with love. Cake symbolises the quiet gentility of afternoon tea, the WI, family, friendship and your mum and there are not many of us who will hear a bad word said about our mums.
Cake is held in such high esteem, that today Macmillan, the cancer charity, is holding the world's biggest coffee morning, encouraging people to bake and sell cakes for charity. Here is the landing page of their website. Do you think the image is appropriate if we should be concerned with the sugar intake of our children?
But is the positive imagery surrounding the most successful 'talent' show on TV, with its country house setting, twee bunting-filled set and cheeky innuendos responsible for reinforcing these attitudes towards this most unhealthy of foods at a time when we should be cutting down on eating cake? It's not only the set that plays its part. Put a slice of Sachertorte in the hands of a slim, classy octogenarian and what is there to worry about, after all if Mary Berry looks that good after a lifetime of baking then surely it can't be bad for you? The fact is that the casting of GBBO, both the presenters and contestants isn't representative of the waistlines of the British population. There are young and old, gay and straight, male and female, black and white but to truly reflect the population, 25% should be obese and 50% overweight. So that's one obese presenter and two overweight, and three obese contestants and six overweight. When we think of GBBO we think of Mary, Paul, Mel and Sue but we also remember the contestants who have gone on to become the faces of the programme - John Whaite, Jo Wheatley, Ruby Tandoh, Martha Collison, Frances Quinn and Edd Kimber, none of whom while on the programme had a BMI to worry any healthcare professional.
Just to be clear, I am not some fat-shaming killjoy who wants to see cake banned. By itself, cake in moderation is nothing to worry about, just like the odd can of Coke won't leave you needing dentures. Nevertheless I do worry that a culture that celebrates cake and showcases baking as an aspirational activity has to be a cause for concern. Bake Off is not just popular with adults. It has a huge following of under 11s and has its own spin off series, Junior Bake Off. My daughter's school, like many others, ran its own Bake Off competition. I doubt it would run a competition to design a fizzy sugary drink, or a new recipe for fried chicken, but somehow cakes are ok.
People don't drop dead on the first mouthful of a Victoria sponge, but that doesn't mean sugar shouldn't be considered as a potential slow poison when administered regularly and in high doses such as in that daily slice of cake. Once a culture becomes engrained and accepted it becomes difficult to destroy when the negative effects become apparent. Far better for the culture not to take root in the first place. Smoking, once seen as cool and sophisticated, is the perfect example of this and cake culture seems to be heading in the same direction.
Japan is a country where desserts and cakes form a relatively small part of the diet yet savoury dishes contain much higher levels of sugar than western dishes. It cannot be said that the Japanese do not have a sweet tooth and they are not ones to avoid the deep fryer either. However the obesity rate in Japan is just 3% compared to the UK's 25%. Interestingly Japan's per capita consumption of the Coca Cola Company's beverage products is similar to the UK's and the highest in Asia. Could the absence of a cake culture in Japan be one of the reasons for the country's low obesity levels?
I meet many people in my working life who have high BMIs, but most don't drink Coke or other sugary drinks, it is their love of cake and desserts that is the problem. The media has a responsibility to show baking in a true light as it now does fizzy drinks, fried chicken and pizza, all of which we have come to know as 'junk food'. If 'junk food' is defined as 'food that is high in calories but low in nutritional content' then that Religieuse à l'ancienne eclair mountain that appeared on last night's Bake Off is no more a showstopper than it is a pile of junk, no matter how pretty it may look.