Junkfood Science: Remembering what it’s like to be a child

May 19, 2007

Remembering what it’s like to be a child

To accompany the overview of the science of sugars, I wanted to share with you one of my favorite sugar essays and one of the sweetest articles ever written on the subject. It appeared several years ago in the Guardian and helps balance the panic that is robbing children of one of their greatest pleasures. It was written by confectionary historian, Tim Richardson, author of Sweets: A History of Candy.

Let them eat sweets

Space Dust. If you were brought up in the 1970s or 80s, or had children growing up at that time, you will probably remember this amazing substance — a sherbet-like chemical concoction that cracked and popped on your tongue with alarming noisiness and seemed to fill your head with wild, unpredictable sounds. No wonder there were urban myths circulating at the time along the lines of, "I knew a kid who ate six packs of Space Dust and then drank a can of Pepsi — his stomach exploded!"...

On the other hand, some people say sweets are bad for children and should be strictly rationed. I take a simpler view: children love sweets and we should celebrate their enthusiasm open-heartedly, while at the same time making sure they come to no harm...Sweets were extremely important to me as a child, as they are for most children. The matter was perhaps exacerbated by the fact that my dad was a dentist, and I was allowed just 10p's worth of sweets a week, on a Saturday morning. This draconian confectionery environment was not, in fact, unusual for children in the 1970s, when the backlash against sugar was already well into its stride...

There is no “side" to sweets. Children take so much pleasure in their lollipops and chocolate buttons that it seems a shame to sully their enjoyment with unfounded worries about what they are doing to their health. It would be wonderful if adults were able to recapture some of their own enthusiasm for sweets and give them to children with love in their eyes and in their hearts, rather than a frown on their faces. But today's children are faced with a nutritional landscape in which sugar is demonised, obesity is a threat, and parents are confused by contradictory public health messages....For many adults, sweets and chocolate have become tantamount to poison, to be strictly rationed or, better still, dispensed with altogether. Even the smallest celebration of sweets causes panic.

He goes on to say the science is clear: that there is no evidence linking sweets to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, hyperactivity and a multitude of other fears that have surrounded sugars over the past forty years. “Indeed, there is a surprising discrepancy between the findings of scientific research and public understanding when it comes to certain ‘demonised’ foods,” he wrote. He calls the panic for what it is:

Morality is at the centre of the debate about sweets. Since the 1960s and the counterculture wholefood movement, we have absorbed the idea that healthy foods are indisputably "good" and other foods are necessarily "bad". A moral hierarchy of food has been established.... The entrenched moral hierarchy of food in our society is worrying because the apportioning of absolute moral value to specific foodstuffs is considered to be at the root of eating disorders. There is also the Anglo-Saxon suspicion of the concept of pleasure from food.

His entire article is a delightful weekend read and I highly recommend it. He closes with a wonderful, delicious paragraph that will bring a smile and speak to the child in every adult:

If this seems to be overstating the situation, it might be worth making an effort to remember what it is like to be a child. When you are a child, the world is a much smaller place, and those things that you do know and care about loom large. Pleasure is a vital component of our relationship with food. Sweets may not bring much in the way of vitamins, but their psychological benefit is unquestionable. A sweet can transform a miserable afternoon, it can break the ice at social occasions, and at the end of a difficult day you can look back and see how a sweetie just tipped the balance and made it into an OK day rather than a truly bad one. And for children, the pleasure of sweets is so intense that it becomes a large part of life. One of the accusations frequently made against sweets is that, in nutritional terms, they represent “empty calories." But any child knows that the calories derived from sweets are not empty. They are full of joy.

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