During my childhood, my mornings started with a bowl of cereal. My older brother Sam would choose Frosties. But I was a Coco Pops girl. What can I say? I just loved the way they made the milk chocolatey.
I don’t consider this particularly controversial. But the sugary grains that I and most of my generation grew up with have taken quite a beating in health circles in recent years.
They are blamed for – or reportedly contributing to – our rapidly rising childhood obesity rate, followed by lifelong ill health and early death.
Plans for a sugar tax on food could push up the price of popular breakfast cereals like Frosties and Coco Pops, affecting Britain’s poorest families
And here I thought it was just breakfast.
They came under fire again last week, thanks to the government’s National Food Strategy.
The 239-page dossier, written by Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the fast-food chain Leon, offered some ambitious ideas — such as giving food a salt and sugar tax, having GPs hand out prescriptions for fruits and vegetables, and mandatory nutrition classes in schools. But it also took a vague look at sugary grains.
Frosties were labeled junk food — alongside sodas, chips, and chocolates. And junk food, it claimed, had hijacked the nation’s appetite, forcing us to eat when we weren’t hungry, increasing the risk of diet-related illness. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today program after the report’s publication, Dimbleby referred to Frosties as ‘pure sugar’.
I admit it, Mr. Dimbleby and I have history (not that he knew it). I’ve never quite forgiven him for joining Marks & Spencer’s Percy Pigs a few years ago. He claimed M&S was “misleading” customers with claims that the sugar-laden jellies were made with natural fruit juice. I love Percys, and I’m sure anyone with half a brain can’t imagine it’s a health food.
Is he coming for Coco Pops now? Okay, I don’t eat them anymore – or at least not often – but I suddenly got the urge to buy a pack. You can’t seriously say Frosties for breakfast is like sending your kid to school with a bag of Walkers Ready Salted, can you?
I invited him to spar with me on the matter on our Medical Minefield podcast—and resisted the urge to audibly crunch through a bowl of cereal live on air. He stayed with his guns.
Mail on Sunday Deputy health editor Eve Simmons, who grew up on Coco Pops, has urged the government to abandon plans for a sugar tax on breakfast cereals because of the impact they will have on the poorest in society
In the Dimbleby household – he lives in Hackney, north London, with journalist wife Jemima and their children Dory, George and Johnny – they eat porridge for breakfast.
Henry told me, ‘If you train yourself, it goes pretty fast. It’s a cup of oats, a cup of milk, and you cook it. Or we might have an egg with toast. None of those things necessarily require great skill.’
Fair enough. I like Dad now. But I wouldn’t have touched it when I was eight.
The point is, it’s just not that parents don’t want or know how to make nutritious breakfasts for their kids. Sometimes a bowl of cereal is just the easiest option for many reasons. And it’s not a bad one. Most grains are fortified with vitamins and you eat them with milk, which is great for us.
I would never argue that junk food—not that I would categorize cereal as such—is particularly good for us. There is good scientific research showing that people who eat more of these foods are more likely to be overweight and more likely to develop heart problems later in life.
Henry Dimbleby, founder of fast food chain LEON, pictured, has completed a government file proposing tax on ‘junk food’ and allowing GPs to prescribe fruit and vegetables to their patients
But when large-scale research is conducted, examining data from multiple studies, the biggest risk factor for obesity-related disease isn’t just the foods people eat — it’s social and financial problems. Those most likely to eat almost exclusively unhealthy foods are the least wealthy. This is hardly surprising.
According to a recent study by the Food Foundation, households with the least amount of cash would have to spend nearly half their monthly wages to meet the recommended healthy eating guidelines set by Public Health England.
Multi-packs of caloric burgers and pizzas, high in fat, sugar and salt, simply offer better value for money. And as Henry pointed out when we spoke, these foods are tasty. Kids — and adults alike — like them, and it can become a challenge to get them to eat something else.
Research also shows that social deprivation is linked to a lack of variety in food choices: You can have two children with nearly identical moderate junk food intake, and the one from poor backgrounds will be more likely to develop diabetes or heart disease later in life than that. with a middle class background.
And this is correct. My brother and I, and just about everyone I grew up with, grew up eating Frosties, Coco Pops, Ribena, and Bird’s Eye chicken dinners and chips.
And we’ve all gone into our early thirties without becoming obese.
Why? Because ill health is about a person’s whole life, not just what they eat. My mother, a journalist, and father, a teacher, made sure we also ate plenty of fish, whole wheat bread, and of course fruits and vegetables. We drove to Waitrose in one of our two cars to do the weekly shopping. We all ate at the table, as a family, every night.
Research also shows that social deprivation is linked to a lack of variety in food choices: You can have two children with nearly identical moderate junk food intake, and the one from poor backgrounds will be more likely to develop diabetes or heart disease later in life than that. with a middle class background
We lived in a nice house with a yard to play in and went to dance classes or soccer practice. No one in the family smoked or drank more than an occasional glass of wine. You get the picture.
If you think it’s unusual for children not to have these things, think back to footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign to feed the 1.7 million children who depend on free school meals who would otherwise have been without during the lockdown.
Nearly one million British households do not have a fridge, while just under two million do not have a stove. Studies show that about one in seven children go to school without any breakfast.
In reality, there’s a lot to like about Henry Dimbleby’s plan. They would use the billions made from new taxes on companies that make sugary and salty foods to fund healthy food vouchers and community kitchen projects. If they mean that taxpayers don’t have to stumble, that could be seen as a win-win situation by ministers.
On the other hand, it will likely end up in an unpleasant situation where you make life’s little pleasures, such as a bowl of Frosties, just a little more expensive. They might as well have said, hey, why not just stop poor people from eating things that are bad for them by making them really expensive? Okay, I’m funny, but you know what I mean.
Dimbleby’s plan could work – although it may not sound like it, I’m always optimistic. But it won’t be the whole solution, because it’s just food.