Whenever I want to travel back in time to my 1970s childhood, all I need is a glass of Lucozade. One sip of the electric orange nectar and there I am in the magical era of Chopper bikes, space hoppers and clackers (which they banned because they were dangerous, apparently), of the Clangers, Animal Magic and John Craven’s Newsround, of Wagon Wheels, Alphabetti spaghetti and chewy chocolate peanut bars still known in those days by their correct name, Marathon. (See also: Jif, Oil of Ulay, Opal Fruits.)
Bliss was it in that loon-panted dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven. Every now and then some awful piece of horror from the outside world would filter briefly into our consciousness — the Jonestown massacre, the Killing Fields, the IRA pub bombings — but not for long. There were all manner of distractions to make the bad things go away: Haliborange, Silly Putty, yo-yos, slime, Dougal and the Blue Cat, David Bowie’s ‘The Laughing Gnome’, The Tomorrow People and yes, maybe best of all, Lucozade.
In those days Lucozade was sold not as an ‘energy drink’ but as a health drink to ‘aid recovery’, as the adverts put it. You bought it in chemists and it came wrapped in crinkly orange cellophane which rustled tantalisingly as you ripped it off and scrunched it into the bin. (Just the one: recycling had, happily, yet to intrude on our lives.)
If your mummy had bought you Lucozade, it meant that you were officially ill. But being ill was great because, apart from getting you off school, it meant you got to drink the most delicious drink in the whole world. There is no point in my trying to describe it: the only thing Lucozade tastes of is Lucozade. I thought it was great then and I still think it’s great now. The last time I had it — before Christmas, when I was feeling listless and not quite right in my skin — it occurred to me as I savoured its sparkling translucent orangeness that it would be this, rather than, say, Château d’Yquem or Cheval Blanc ’47, that I’d probably choose as my final drink before the firing squad.
Little did I know at the time that this would be the last real Lucozade I’d ever taste. That’s because the company that owns the brand — Lucozade Ribena Suntory — has just radically altered the formula, reducing its sugar content by 50 per cent and replacing it with the artificial sweetener aspartame. Announcing the change last year, the company’s COO Peter Harding said: ‘The world has changed, with consumers now wanting healthier drinks and more action from the brands they regularly enjoy.’
Is this actually true, though? Not judging by the comments on Lucozade’s Twitter feed. Diabetics are upset because when they suffer hypoglycaemia, they’ll now need to drink twice as much Lucozade to boost their blood sugar levels. Recreational users are simply upset by the disgusting taste — ‘vile’, ‘staggeringly bad’, ‘horrible’, ‘made me gag’ — which they have variously likened to bleach, bathwater and Lidl own-brand lemonade.
So lots of people who used to drink Lucozade will now stop drinking Lucozade. And to disapproving, authoritarian, health-conscious, killjoy types this will surely be no bad thing. Sugar, after all, as some campaigners put it, is ‘not just a drug but a poison too’. Therefore, the less available we make it, the sooner we can go about tackling the ‘obesity epidemic’ which allegedly is ravaging our society. Right?
Well yes. I can imagine this would represent a powerful argument if you’re a member of the obsessive, bansturbatory campaign group Action on Sugar or hang out in chatrooms on Mumsnet or read the Guardian or you’re one of those Labour councillors in London who recently plotted (unsuccessfully) to try to have smoking made illegal in pub gardens.
What is less obvious, though, is why such illiberal measures should enthuse some Conservatives. But they do, clearly. James Cracknell, the former Olympic oarsman, said recently in a Sky interview that ‘combatting obesity’ was the main reason he wanted to become a Tory MP. Warming to his theme, he praised North Korea for being one of only two countries that has ‘a handle on obesity’. The other one, he added helpfully, for his social media following, was that similarly bright exemplar of democracy, Cuba.
Meanwhile, the person most directly responsible for Lucozade’s decision to change its formula was that doughty champion of free markets, the former Tory chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. When Osborne announced his new sugar tax last year as part of his government’s Childhood Obesity Strategy, Jamie Oliver danced a victory jig outside the House of Commons.
I met Oliver before he became famous. Nice guy, means well, definitely not the sort of person you’d want dictating your country’s fiscal policy. Or culinary policy, for that matter. What kind of chef worth his salt would campaign for food to be altered so that it tastes less delicious, more disgusting? As Christopher Snowdon once put it so well: ‘Food companies do not put sugar, fat and salt in products for fun. They do it because we like them.’
Yet now, under the basilisk eye of the unelected, busybody Public Health England, the products we like are to be replaced by products we don’t like nearly so much. It happened long ago to Heinz Baked Beans and Heinz Tomato Ketchup (now with so much less sugar you have to store it in the fridge). Imminently, it will happen to lots of other products we remember fondly from our youth — fizzy drinks, cakes, biscuits…
Thanks, Jamie and George, for stealing my childhood.