Bake-off: a table of cakes for the Oxford-Cambridge boat race. Photo: Getty
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Tracey Thorn: The kids protest but sugary treats are an ever stickier issue

The low-fat yoghurts I shovel down my neck and the smoothies I’ve been promoting to my vegetable-allergic teenage son might just as well have been crystal meth.

I’m so obedient it’s tragic, really. I am a government campaign’s model audience. Give me a command, see how I run. A few weeks ago, the news was full of how sugar was killing us all. I approached the newspaper articles with some complacency, taking for granted that we were a virtuous household, but then was horrified to see from the pictures of all the things containing “as much sugar as a can of Coke” that I was wrong. 

The low-fat yoghurts I shovel down my neck and the smoothies I’ve been promoting to my vegetable-allergic teenage son might just as well have been crystal meth. Being a typical self-blaming middle-class mother, I spent the next hour gloomily pondering this unexpected failure, before mentally regrouping and deciding it was time to take action. That evening I announced to the dinner table that we were “having a crackdown on sugar”.

This went down about as well as you might imagine. Protestations that they were already being forced to eat a diet virtually Stone Age in its wholesomeness and frugality were met by my unyielding assertions that I was now in possession of New Information, rendering everything we’d thought up until now about our eating habits out of date. Rationing was about to begin. Foods that had once been a treat had insidiously wormed their way into every mealtime and were now back to being a treat. The response was a general wailing and gnashing of teeth, followed by despondency. For the next few days, cupboards would be opened ostentatiously with mournful sighs to reveal that where once there had been KitKats, now there was empty space; where once there were Honey Nut Clusters, now there was porridge.

A week or two went by, but then a certain sneakiness crept in. While I’d adjusted the shopping order, everyone else, it seemed, had adjusted their daily schedule to incorporate a trip to the shops for emergency biscuits. I had hidden a few chocolatey titbits, to be doled out at intervals and not exceeding the daily recommended allowance (although, the more I looked into it, the more this seemed to be an alarmingly vague and shifting figure, comfortingly high on the back of cereal packets, impossibly low according to World Health Organisation guidelines). Handing out the sweet treats without giving away the hiding places was tricky, and soon it became obvious that the secret stash was secret no longer and it began to disappear faster than I was distributing it.

Into this already fracturing scenario came a sudden and extremely unwelcome announcement. In the matter of vegetable consumption, it turns out that five a day is useless and that we should be eating seven, if not ten. And it can’t be fruit or, even worse, smoothies (yes, I’m looking at you, Tracey Thorn, as I read this out on the radio): it must be mostly vegetables; proper green, leafy, cabbage-smelling, earth-smeared vegetables. This was a bit of a blow. I might have deluded myself that our sugar consumption was Paltrow-ish, but there was no way I could stretch the youngest’s tally of baked beans and pasta sauce to look like ten portions of kale. I am defeated. Later that day, standing in the queue by the till at the local Tesco Express, I look at all the shiny things on sale. Reaching out, all I can touch is a floor-to-ceiling array of things that will kill me. Ciggies, booze, choccies; nothing that is necessary or good for me, but all of them in their own way representing a little shot of joy, a hit of pleasure to brighten the day. Despite my obedience, and my willingness to listen to health campaigns, I don’t know why we’re so surprised that we like these things. We wonder how we’ve ended up here, eating things that aren’t really food and ignoring all the health warnings, but it’s simply because we’re human.

We need treats, and it’s only a sliding scale of spending that leads you from the pricey ones that will do you no harm – trips to the cinema, new shoes, weekend minibreaks – to these little, cheaper ones, which will. If you’re lucky you can balance the two, and congratulate yourself for doing as you’re told, and being good, while you cross your fingers and hope that it’s good enough. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.