Friday, March 21, 2014

Hello, Sweetie

First published in the Western People on Monday.

If you want to know how Oisín felt when he returned from Tír-na-nÓg, try being the last man in Ireland who takes sugar in his tea when he goes visiting. It’s been bad enough in recent years, but a new report from the World Health Organisation has put the tin hat on it entirely.

The day is coming fast when even saying terrible things about Brian O’Driscoll will be more socially acceptable than taking sugar in your tea. You could ask for a slice of lemon – for reasons best known to yourself – in your tea and nobody would look twice at you. You could refuse tea entirely, and ask for an Iced Skinny Mocha, no whip, heavy on the syrup, and it’d be handed over just like that, instead of the hiding you would have got years ago for acting the Yank.

But ask for sugar in your tea and your days of going visiting are over. You can turn up in your wellingtons after a hard day digging ditches and nothing will be said. You can turn up at the door asking people to convert to some tree-worshipping religion or even, the Lord save us, give out booklets in praise of the old Latin Mass, and you’ll be asked to come in out the cold. But once you get the name of a sweet sugar man every door will close in your face.

There was a time in Ireland when consumption of sugar was seen as a patriotic duty. In the early years of the state, it was decided to set up the Irish Sugar Company, Comhlacht Siúcra Éireann, to process sugar beet for the island nation. There were two solid reasons behind the idea.

Firstly, the state hoped to be self-sufficient and it made more sense to grow our own sugar than to rely on imports. Secondly, the growing of sugar beet – and a sugar beet is a funny-looking thing, like a cross between a turnip and a parsnip – would encourage crop rotation by stealth. It was win-win as far as the government were concerned.

Sugar factories were set up in Carlow, Mallow, Thurles and Tuam and farmers from all around brought their beet to their nearest factory by train, truck, trailer and even the good old ass and cart. All in the past now, of course. The factories in Tuam and Thurles were closed in the 1980s. Irish Sugar rebranded as Greencore in the early 1990s but nothing could be done to save Carlow or Mallow. Progress, you know.

But now we’ve progressed to the stage where not only can you not grow sugar, you certainly should have nothing to do with consuming the stuff. In contemporary Ireland, you couldn’t cause a bigger shock by dropping a spoon of sugar into your tea when you’re sitting by the fire of an evening than if you stuck the spoon into the ashes and horsed that in instead.

The latest World Health Organisation report will do for sugar what being read out at Mass used to do to for poitín-makers. According to the WHO, the world is heaving with great, big fatties at the moment, and it’s too much sugar in the diet that at the root cause of it.

But here’s the one hope for the sugar-in-his-tea man, a straw for him to clutch at. It isn’t the sugar in the tea that swells you up like a balloon. It’s the secret sugars in the modern diet that sneak up on you until all of a sudden there’s a TV3 camera crew watching your every move as you dream of someday seeing your toes again, or changing channels on the TV without sweating.

If you put a spoon of sugar in your tea you know that you did that. You know exactly what it is, because it’s sitting there on the spoon in front of you. You can see the stuff. It’s the sugar you can’t see, that you don’t even know is there, that will do for you.

If you drink a can of coke, you know that’s loaded with sugar. You’re an adult, you know the risks. Fair enough. But when you think you’re being good as gold by choking down low-fat yoghurt, your disappointment will be acute when you find out that a five ounce tub of the stuff can contain five teaspoons of sugar – half that of a can of coke and about a tenth the refreshment, if even that.

We tend to forget how industrial the delivery of our food has become. A lot of so-called health-foods take quite some amount of processing to make them more “healthy” that something you just dig out of the ground or pull off a bush.

This goes back to the late 1960s – when else? – when the best dietary advice going identified fat as the leading cause of heart disease. The shops filled with low-fat alternatives to different foods – low-fat milk, low-fat spreads, low-fat biscuits, the full works.

But here’s the thing – fat gives food flavour. That’s why marbled steaks are so nice, because the fat is evenly spread throughout the thing. If you take fat out of foods, they’re not going to taste very nice. So the food industry simply switched the fat for sugar and rolled merrily along.

At the time, the food manufacturers, to be fair to them, may not have realised how much they were robbing the dietary Peter to pay the dietary Paul. In all probability, they thought they were doing everyone a favour. Unfortunately, the past decades have seen obesity become a real problem, not just in the west, but all over the world. This is because a lot of modern processed foods are not good for you, no matter how much they may claim to be.

So continue on putting the spoon of sugar in the tea, for all the harm it’ll do you. But when you’re in the supermarket, and you see slices of ham that are exactly rectangular in shape, ask yourself just how many piggies you’ve seen that you could use for a ruler to draw a straight line if you were stuck. If the number is low, best to drive on, and make your sandwiches from something a bit more recognisable.