From food to sex: defend spontaneity

Whether we’re drinking or fornicating, why are we always being told to ‘stop, think, proceed with caution’?

It was only an innocent desire for a snack. I nipped into a supermarket for a pint of milk and a little ‘treat’ – a multi-pack of Twix biscuits. However, it seems you can’t even enjoy a chocolate bar these days without a health warning.

On the front of the pack was a helpful suggestion: ‘Be Treatwise.’ Apparently, I should get to know my GDAs, and each bar in the pack I had just bought contains ‘6%’ of my kcal GDA. A quick examination of the back of the pack revealed that kcals are in fact what we normally call ‘calories’ and ‘GDA’ means Guideline Daily Amount.

‘Treatwise’ may have been around for years, but I had never noticed it before. Is it necessary? I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to work out that if I have a biscuit with my cup of tea, I’m not likely to experience any negative consequences. In fact, having just engaged in this activity for research purposes, I can confirm it is actually jolly nice. But if I scoff an entire pack of these chocolate, toffee and biscuit fingers – all 1,107 calories’ worth – I’m likely to start putting on weight. More importantly, I hope such gluttonous behaviour would make me want to vomit.

‘Be Treatwise’ is supported by Britain’s big confectionery producers, including Mars and Cadbury. It is essentially the industry telling you to eat sweets responsibly. And chocolate makers are not alone in suggesting that you stop before you indulge. ‘Drinkaware’ is funded by Britain’s big brewers and distillers; its website encourages readers to ‘Respect Alcohol, Respect Yourself’. Drinkaware supports the government’s ‘Know Your Limits’ campaign and reminds us that drinking any more than our recommended number of ‘units’ per day – three for men, two for women - could be dangerous.

I have a certain amount of sympathy for the companies behind these ventures. After all, nobody’s forcing us to use their products. We keep buying them because we like them. Yet because of today’s overblown panics about obesity and binge drinking - and because the producers must be seen to be doing the responsible thing - we are constantly reminded that there’s a potential downside to consumption. Even if it’s absolutely bleedin’ obvious.

Take this example from the website of single-malt whisky, Glen Grant:

‘Enjoy your evening. Drinking should be a pleasurable activity, and certainly after the first drink you may experience a warm, mellow feeling. Your inhibitions may also be lowered which could make for a relaxed experience. However, as you would expect, the more alcohol you consume the less alert and the less inhibited you are likely to become. Your judgement will become impaired as will your coordination.’

Then things really take a turn for the worse: ‘It doesn’t take a genius to realise that this could cause problems. If you continue drinking after this point, you could experience mood swings and possibly put yourself in compromising or dangerous situations. People who have drunk too much are unattractive and can be off-putting, miles away from the sophistication and relaxation that they could be enjoying.’

Some may argue that one of the main aims of having a few drinks is to end up in a compromising situation, with our inhibitions relaxed; but maybe the makers of Glen Grant don’t get out enough.

So the message is: sugary sweets will make you fat if you eat enough of them; alcoholic drinks will get you drunk if you imbibe a lot, and nobody likes a drunk. And if you chronically eat or drink to excess, it can cause health problems. Like the nice people at Glen Grant point out, this kind of thing ‘doesn’t take a genius’.

There’s something slightly dishonest about this trend. The manufacturers put these statements on their products, but must actually hope that we buy them anyway. And we carefully peruse various items on the supermarket shelf before consuming them anyway, while feeling a little guilty thanks to the ‘wise’ and ‘aware’ information. It all becomes a rather pointless ritual.

It is also irrational. Big corporations have effectively been placed in a situation where they must ask us not to buy their products. A similar situation applies to energy companies: they seem to spend more and more time telling us how we can save money and the planet by using less of their product. One energy company in the UK is even encouraging children to become ‘climate cops’ and inform on their parents if they waste electricity (see Children, Forward to the Glorious Green Future!, by Lee Jones).

Such a screwed-up arrangement suits governments, though. Out of touch, and feeling like society is out of control, the political class knows that moralising our behaviour is one of the few ways in which it can exercise some influence. Hence, there is a relentless desire to make us stop and think about everything we do.

Spontaneity, in this view, is the road to ruin. So we are told to be ‘treatwise’ and ‘drinkaware’, and reminded to leave nothing on standby because it wastes power. This is also why governments think condoms are superior to the Pill – because you have to think in advance that you would like to have sex, and then fiddle about in the dark to get it on before you can get it on. As the new Department of Health posters instruct us: ‘Think B4 sex.’ No danger of spontaneity there.

It’s like a Green Cross Code for life in general: stop, think, proceed with caution. It is the essence of Puritanism – hectoring from on high disguised as an invitation to self-restraint.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons reckoned that when it came to food information we were suffering from a trolley-load of fears. Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth and wondered if the government knows its limits. Brendan O’Neill thought the debate about binge drinking was a licence to bash the masses and that advertising ‘junk food’ is a matter of free speech. Chris Pile was amazed that food labelling had become so controversial.  Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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