Sugar - All They Want is the Tax, Man

Before everyone stampedes into a sugar tax, may I just try to shine a small beam of light of sanity into this increasingly hysterical ‘debate?’ I’m no sugar lover and have fought the good fight to keep my consumption as low as possible for many decades. In 1971, in my book About Macrobiotics I wrote: “If sugar were discovered yesterday it would be banned and possibly handed over to the Army for weapons research.’ But at the same time, without sugar we’d all be dead. It's all about how much we consume and in what form - simple or complex. But when even the Financial Times editorialises about ‘The Compelling Case for a Sugar Tax’ it’s time to dig a little deeper into the obesity and diabetes epidemic before rushing out to slap a tax on drinks containing sugar.   What have taxes on booze, fags and petrol ever done to reduce consumption? Governments will always love the tax option, it’s so much easier to make money out of a problem than to solve it.

To begin with we need to understand about blood sugar. I am going to oversimplify. Life depends on glucose, the simplest sugar. When we eat or drink sugar, the glucose element quickly tops up our blood sugar level because blood sugar is glucose. The fructose element follows a different metabolic pathway and ends as fat or stored glycogen in the liver, which can then be converted into glucose when it is needed.

When we eat too much sugar the blood glucose level rises to dangerous levels and the pancreas pumps out insulin to bring it down. But it overshoots, so the insulin keeps taking glucose sugar out of the blood and before you know it, the blood glucose level is too low. The body panics as sugar is vital to cell function and brain function, so it tells the liver to release some of its stores of glucose, which helps. But the liver only has a limited supply and struggles to keep up with the demand, so the craving for sugar eventually becomes irresistible. It’s a natural inbuilt survival mechanism to crave sugar when blood sugar levels are low.

In our gut there are 10,000 different types of microbes, including useful candida yeasts, which help with the breakdown of sugar. When there’s a lot of sugar those candida multiply like crazy and outcompete the other gut flora. Worse than that, they mutate into a resilient and greedy fungal form that demands more and more sugar. Candida gets a lock on your brain and remotely controls your appetite to deliver more sugar. You can’t tax candida, you have to kill it. By starvation. Once candida is put back in its box the cravings for sugar diminish. Probiotics can help to suppress candida, as will berberine, grapefruit seed extract, garlic and oregano. But the key is to cut off its food supply.  But starving candida ain't easy.

How does candida get such a grip? Candida’s takeover of our digestive process is much easier when the other gut flora, such as lactobacilli or bifidobacteria, are dead or dying.

This happens when you take antibiotics or regularly consume food that contains antibiotic residues, particularly non-organic chicken and pork. Other medications that kill off the digestive system microbial community and clear the path for yeasts and candida include birth control hormones, hormone replacement therapy, acid-suppressing drugs and steroids. Doctors who dish out antibiotics for common cold are helping drive the obesity epidemic.  Maybe we should tax doctors who dish out antibiotics willy-nilly?

Caffeine plays a role, too. Ever notice how many people piously say ‘no’ to sugar in their tea or coffee, and then have a brownie or a big cookie? A brownie can contain twice the sugar of a can of Coke.   Caffeine increases the flow of blood to the brain, where ¼ of our sugar consumption takes place – thinking is hard work and uses a lot of glucose. Drinking a double espresso accelerates your brain and the rate at which you burn glucose, leading to low blood sugar and sugar cravings. The liver just can’t keep up with converting glycogen to glucose. People ingest a lot more caffeine nowadays than ever before. In Britain there has been a dramatic fall in scone and teacake consumption too, with a corresponding rise in consumption of cookies, muffins and brownies. Drink it or eat it, sugar is sugar.

Alcohol also creates sugar cravings. Especially on an empty stomach. Alcohol increases insulin output, which reduces blood glucose levels and it inhibits the liver from producing glucose to top up those levels. Result? Uncontrollable urges to consume sugar.

How about a glass of milk? Milk contains 5% sugars, about half what you’d get from a can of Coke. Tax milk at half the rate of soft drinks? Tell that to the NFU.  Is giving kids milk instead of water doing more harm because of the sugar than good because of the calcium?

If you’re going to tax sugar, then ALL sugar should be taxed, regardless of whether it’s in a brownie or a glass of apple juice or a cup of tea or a can of Coke. Whether sugar comes from a cane, a root, a bee, a cactus, a coconut tree, a maple tree, a cow, a goat, a camel or a grape or an orange or an apple or a pineapple it should be taxed equally. Otherwise you just move sugar consumption around based on pricing. Taxation never stopped people smoking but education and bans in public places has helped.

So what’s the answer? There are organic natural sweeteners such as stevia, licorice and erythritol that can provide a sweet taste without the glucose impact of sugar. But ultimately there are 3 words that sum it up: education, education, education. The Soil Association’s massively successful Food For Life school meals programme supplies 2 million school meals a day that commit to be freshly prepared, with local and organic ingredients. Jeannette Orrey, the legendary autobiographical author of “Dinner Lady” told me recently that Food For Life school meals now often have puddings made with half the sugar than usual and some participating schools are no longer serving pudding at all and the kids are cool about it. Time builds up bad habits. If kids grow up with minimal exposure to excesses of sugar, fruit juice, milk, cookies and other sugar sources and are helped to restore healthy probiotic conditions in their gut after exposure to antibiotics or other medications then they will be healthy adults with sensible appetites and a much lower predisposition to obesity and diabetes. For the rest of us, particularly those who have overdosed on sugar from an early age, the path to health is much harder and, for some, impossible. A tax will never solve this, education and behavior change will.

My Salad Breakfast

This morning, for breakfast, I went into the garden with a couple of slices of bread slathered with mayonnaise and a rice cake smeared with Jersey butter. Then I proceeded to pick from my winter salad garden: lamb’s lettuce, French parsley, various Japanese winter veg including mizuna and two frilly but intensely hot mustardy greens, land cress (a thicket self seeded from a single plant earlier this year), lettuce, winter purslane and, for a touch of the bitters, artemisia – wormwood. I added a leaf of radicchio from plants that have sprung up through the brickwork of a path. Just as we think of ‘food miles’ there is a parallel concept of ‘food days’ from harvest to consumption. In this case it was ‘food seconds’ – the leaves barely knew they had been plucked before they disappeared into the welcoming warm darkness of my esophagus, still brimming with vitality as they headed for the acid bath of my stomach.  The garden owes everything to Rocket Gardens Winter Salad Collection, a superb collection of cold-tolerant plants that were delivered to me back in September, to get established before the cold set in. They haven’t been tested by frost (well, a very light one a few weeks ago) but my experience has been that my biochar-rich soil has such an active biology that the warmth it gives off acts as underfloor central heating for the plants. Soil is everything and I am lucky to have Carbon Gold at my fingertips, continually discovering new aspects of the joys of biochar gardening.

But enough about the soil, it’s the variety that gets me every time I have my salad breakfast.

Here they are, sharing a plate with a buttered rice cake and the lamb’s lettuce growing just behind.   But read on for the individual varietals and pictures.

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I love the light mucilaginousness of winter purslane, with its spade-shaped leaves that look like they’ve escaped from a deck of playing cards. Purslane.jpg

Then there are the red chicories – radicchio and rosso de Treviso, both squeezing through the brick path. These provide a crisp bitterness.


The Japanese Red Frills Mustard leaves are hot and mustardy and satisfyingly crunchy. Here are the purple ones, finding space between the turnips and the spring onions.

IMG_1264 (1).jpg And here are their green cousins, the Green Frills Mustard

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The land cress is easily as peppery as its aquatic cousin


The Lamb’s Lettuce miraculously replaces removed leaves almost, it seems, overnight. Light in flavour and texture.

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French parsley does the same, endlessly offering up new leaves to replace those plucked earlier.  Here it is in the foreground, with emerging Babbington’s leeks just behind.


Mizuna rounds it out, though it seems to be struggling more with the cold than the others.


A dab of Artemisia is always a good digestive tonic, but very bitter, so I get that down first and then follow with the sweeter and more pungent leaves.


eating breakfast.jpg

Food for (psychiatrists’) thought

In-fighting among psychiatrists over what constitutes mental illness has hit new levels. Craig Sams offers to diagnose their dysfunctional behaviour.

Stop the press! The American Psychiatric Association is publishing the latest edition of the ‘DSM’ (that’s the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to you and me). People are mentally ill in pretty much the same way they’ve always been – but the diagnosis and treatment are flip-flopping hither and thither. Vast amounts of money have been poured into psychiatric research, making neuroscience a big money spinner for researchers. Result after 30 years? Zilch, nada, just more arguing within the psychiatric profession.

To oversimplify:

• Some time ago mentally ill people were ‘schizophrenic’ (two minds)

• Then the DSM partially reclassified it as ‘manic-depressive’ (two states of mind)

• Then the DSM decided that there was another variant:  ‘bipolar disorder’ (two mental states)

• And what’s more, ‘manic’ in a kid could be ‘Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder’ – worthy of putting the kid on addictive Ritalin.

These diagnoses can often overlap, so now they are wondering if there’s a common cause that could explain the overlap.

There’s plenty of evidence that biological problems could affect brain circuits involving emotion, cognition and behaviour.

The research to nail down the genetic causes of mental illness has got nowhere. The research to find biological markers has got nowhere.

The attempt to locate centres of mental activity haven’t moved much from the old skulls of phrenologists marked with ‘acquisitiveness,’ ‘hope’, ‘secretiveness’ or ‘sublimity.’ That was when they thought the bumps on your head could reveal your inner personality.

Psychiatric drugs are not a cure, sometimes just a chemical cosh, often misprescribed. They can suppress powerful human instincts such as the reluctance to commit suicide.  A prescription can be a lifetime sentence to pill popping.

The guru of Zen Macrobiotics, Georges Ohsawa, listed mental illness as the hardest disease to cure, but believed that if a mentally ill person got on track to good physical health then good mental health would follow.

The Royal Marines take a more manly approach, with the motto ‘Mens Sana in Corpore Sano.’ This translates as ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body.’

The natural food business is the delivery system of the healthy eating movement, reflecting the belief that if we eat wholesome natural foods we will enjoy good physical and mental health.

In the early days people who said you should eat more wholegrains and vegetables were categorised as wackos or crazies. Now the World Health Organisation, the UK Ministry of Health, the US Centers for Disease Control etc all say “eat more wholegrains and vegetables and exercise”.

Doctors struggle to keep up, it’s much easier to prescribe a painkiller or a blood pressure drug than to advise on a healthy lifestyle of regular exercise and nutritious organic food. But at least they now begrudgingly admit that you should eat less junk and walk around a bit.

So what’s with the psychiatric profession? Why don’t they get it? Do they have some kind of major mental block about disorders?

Mental illness is a lot more complicated than physical illness. The symptoms are more erratic and you can’t pin them down to a specific organ. They’ve tried to map the brain for ages, using one sophisticated method after another, issuing press releases full of misplaced hope that have only ensured more taxpayer-funded research money is squandered on misguided projects.

Mental illness can, rarely, be a disease of the brain. But very often is just a behavioral reflection of a deep physical disorder. People with mental health problems are statistically more likely to have diseases of gut dysbiosis such as coeliac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, gluten intolerance and sprue. People with serious gut health problems often suffer depression. Any clues here?

The natural and organic foods delivery system offers a cure for an ecologically sick planet and for physically sick humans.

Can it also, perhaps, offer the most effective route to dealing with the epidemic of mental illness that has left the psychiatric profession spitting tacks at each other and getting no closer to a solution?

‘Mens sana in corpore sano.’ Bleedin’ obvious and no less true today than 2100  years ago.

Chocolate Wars (Financial Times book review)

CHOCOLATE WARS by Deborah Cadbury
It wasn’t easy being Quaker. Banned from careers in government, the church or law and with their pacifism barring a military career, they were forced into commerce. Their high ethical standards meant they couldn't be involved with alcohol, gambling or making armaments. The grocery trade became a natural outlet for their energies.All the great English chocolate dynasties: Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree, were Quakers. Their belief in the brotherhood of man led to paternalistic employment practices. They build garden towns for their employees with creches, sporting facilities and healthcare. Cameron's 'Big Society’ was second nature - they believed that cooperation and social provision were a necessary and natural adjunct to making money. They encouraged cooperation, volunteering and debt avoidance as fundamentals of behaviour - until competition from the State made their efforts redundant. Deborah Cadbury approvingly quotes Andrew Carnegie: "I can conceive of no greater mistake...than of trying to make charity do the work of justice." If the welfare state encourages dependency, the socially inclusive world of the chocolate industry encouraged self-reliance, hard work and abstemiousness. No pubs in Bournville and no tolerance for slackers in a tight-knit community, but generous provision for those who repaid the firm's confidence.

These straitlaced kindhearted pioneers built great chocolate empires and successfully fended off 100 years of assaults on the British market from Van Houten in Holland and Nestle, Suchard and Peter from Switzerland, while building market domination wherever the globe was coloured pink. Chocolate Wars is much more than a story of a few family businesses - it covers the worldwide growth of the now near-universal addiction to chocolate from the rather unappealing greasy chocolate drinks that prevailed at the beginning of the Victorian age. The role of innovation, war and new technology on business development are all clearly and cleverly interleaved to make this book a gripping overview of the evolution from tiny beginnings to what is now a $500 billion industry.

The book dwells in detail on the ethical dilemma faced by the early Quaker chocolatiers when they discovered that their cocoa bean supply came from plantations that relied on slave labour and tells how the Ghana cocoa industry was fostered to provide a smallholder-owned alternative. Yes there is just a fleeting mention of Fairtrade and not a word about Green & Black’s, the pioneer brand in both the organic and Fairtrade categories and a Cadbury acquisition in 2005.

One question that is unanswered in the book was "Why Switzerland?" The chocolate making season is longer at cooler heights and latitudes - chocolate doesn't set at high temperatures. Swiss watchmakers are good at precision technology. Switzerland had the first structural dairy surpluses in Europe, providing cheap milk for processors. But the fact that non-Swiss companies house their European HQ in Switzerland points to another factor: taxation. The lamentation about job losses in Bristol (which Cadbury's had already irreversibly exported to Poland) overlooked the real loss; Cadbury's annual contribution from its global activities to HM Treasury.

What triggered Cadbury's loss of independence? Selling Hershey the US rights to the Cadbury brand in 1988 meant Cadbury could never become a truly global chocolate company. When Cadbury sought to take over Rowntree and become the world's largest chocolate company the Thatcher government blocked it with a referral to the Monopolies Commission, then allowed a Nestle takeover that handed the Swiss firm global dominion. The disposal of Schweppes soft drinks in 2007 reduced debt but made the company smaller, making it just about affordable for Kraft - they still had to make a $3 billion asset disposal to fund the purchase. It may be presumptuous to disagree with my fellow Omahan, Warren Buffett, but Kraft CEO Irene Rosenfeld saw a window of opportunity and seized the moment before it could close. For that Kraft’s shareholders can be eternally grateful - she got a great deal that will amplify their fortunes going forward. The hedge funds dealt the final hand, but the vulnerability was already there and she went straight for it.