Jamie Oliver’s laugh greets me before I even see his cheeky smile. Coming from deep in the belly it suggests a man who is happy with life. He’s also a man who has recently turned 40. How does it feel? “Well,” he muses, as he settles into his chair, looking remarkably fit and trim for a man embracing middle age, “you still feel like a 20-year-old but you’re 40 and you’ve got kids. It’s not depressing but you think, OK, this is the next bit. How far forward do we plan?”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he’s currently thinking about living for ever – or at least, a long and healthy life. In Everyday Super Foods, coming soon to Channel 4, he travels the world exploring the diets of centenarians.
“In the show, you see me meet this guy who is 106,” he enthuses. “The dude is an antique! And as I met more 100-year-olds who could still crack a joke and have a laugh I realised that even if your days are numbered, if your family loves you and you’re having a laugh, that’s great.”
But being Jamie he’s not happy with making just one television show when he could be making two. And this week he launches the sort of high-profile project he hasn’t embarked on since Jamie’s School Dinners dominated the national news agenda in 2005. In many ways it promises to be harder than cracking the secret of eternal life – because he’s taking on the sugar industry. In Jamie’s Sugar Rush on Thursday, he attacks our dependence on sugar.
“It’s ten years on from School Dinners but it’s absolutely part of the same thinking about love, care, abuse and what we eat. Sugar is such an innocent molecule, and yet its power and how it’s affecting public health is extraordinary. Three out of five kids leave school overweight or obese. It’s gnarly.”
Gnarly or not, it is certainly a public health issue in much of the western world and in the documentary Oliver sets out to investigate the role played by advertising campaigns for sugary foods and drinks, the high quantities of sugar in so-called “healthy” products and the effect of diseases such as Type 2 diabetes. According to the charity Diabetes UK more than 3.3 million people have the condition in some form, an increase of one million in a decade.
No wonder he saves much of his anger for the damage sugar addiction is doing. “In Britain we put sugar in tea. A 500ml bottle of cola has 13 1/2 teaspoons. What?” He talks of a need to add coded warnings on cans of sugary drinks and of his “categoric belief in a sugar tax”. “We need coding, we need snapshots… Half the sugar you consume is hidden in foods. The single largest amount of calories consumed by our children is in sugary soft drinks. They’re a business and they categorically don’t believe in a sugar tax.
“But seven pence on a can of Coke is a billion quid a year and I want it for you! That’s my rant. Even those who are on side, like scientists, hate the idea of [pictures of] teaspoons on the side of sugary sweetened drinks, but I totally disagree. If you put a snapshot on a can and it said it had ten teaspoons of sugar in it, it’s going to change consumption by everyone. Even Billy from Bognor is going to get it.”