The Jamie Oliver Diet: How U.K. Celebrity Chef Took On Big Sugar

  • TV chef’s campaign persuaded government to impose sugar tax
  • Lunch with Cameron, TV documentaries and Facebook videos

Jamie Oliver.

Photographer: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Jamie Oliver doesn’t mince words: Britain, like America, is too fat.

QuickTake Obesity

So fat that he’s been waging a public war on sugar -- one that has Big Food up in arms. It all began in June 2015 when the rock-star chef walked into 10 Downing Street to meet David Cameron, then British prime minister, and proposed a tax on sugary drinks like Coke and Pepsi.

“I might as well have wafted dog’s muck in front of everyone,” Oliver recalled. “He said, ‘Well I don’t really like a tax.’ ”

Seemingly against the odds, Oliver got his way, making the fifth-largest economy in the world the latest wealthy nation to combat obesity and the health problems that come with it.
In March, then-Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne surprised health campaigners by announcing he would legislate to impose a tax that would raise 520 million pounds ($659 million) a year.

The U.K.’s vote to quit the European Union cost Cameron and Osborne their jobs, but new Prime Minister Theresa May decided to push ahead with the tax in August, when her government singled out Oliver as a key supporter of it. On Monday, the government published draft legislation, which Parliament is set to vote on next year.

Local Votes

Since the U.K. announced its plan, Ireland and Portugal have followed with their own proposals. France, Hungary and Mexico already tax soda, and at least 10 other countries worldwide are contemplating similar measures. Several U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Oakland, California, on Nov. 8 passed ballot initiatives to create local sugary-drink taxes, following Philadelphia and Berkeley, California. Drinks companies like Britvic Plc and Lucozade Ribena Suntory Ltd. have vowed to reduce the sugar content of their products.

With millions of followers on Twitter and Facebook and a media blitz that included a television documentary and testimony before Parliament, Oliver argued that the U.K.’s addiction to sugar had spun out of control and that companies such as Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. should be disciplined like naughty children. As a result, everyone from rival British chef Heston Blumenthal to British tabloids has called the proposed levy “Jamie Oliver’s sugar tax.” 

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The U.K.’s tax -- expected to add about 8 pence to a 70 pence can of Coke -- will come into force in 2018 if it wins support in Parliament. The industry, led by the British Soft Drinks Association, is lobbying against the bill, saying it would cost jobs and hurt poor people who spend a disproportionate amount of their income on food and drink.

“It’s a levy on industry but it will feed through to higher prices on consumers,” said Gavin Partington, director-general of the association. “In the process it will lead to job losses in the industry and the poorest in society will pay higher prices.”

Oliver disagrees. To demonstrate to Cameron that the tax could work, he implemented a 10-pence surcharge on sugary drinks in more than 45 of his Jamie’s Italian restaurants across the U.K starting in mid-2015 and persuaded other restaurants to do the same. The fee has raised 170,000 pounds, which Oliver has donated to the health charity Sustain to run children’s health programs.

‘Not Anti-Business’

“I’m not anti-business,” the 41-year-old chef said, sitting in the meeting room above his Fifteen Restaurant in London. “Doing the right thing is good business.”

Oliver said his epiphany came in Los Angeles about five years ago, when he was making a documentary series for U.S. television network ABC about the junk food dominating school lunches. The children could get their free meal only if they also took milk, which was almost always chocolate- or strawberry-flavored. 

“When we did our surveys, kids didn’t know milk was white -- they thought it was pink or black,” he said. “There were more total sugars per 100 milliliters of milk than a can of Coke.”

To illustrate the point, Oliver filmed himself in front of a school bus and filled it with sand -- the amount of sugar, he said, that children consume from flavored milk in a week in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the U.S.

When he told his team a few years later that he wanted a sugary-drinks tax in the U.K. to be his next big campaign, he watched eyes roll. “Everyone thought I was mad,” he said. “They look at you and think, ‘For the love of god.’ ”

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave more than $18 million to campaigns in support of the tax initiatives in Oakland and San Francisco, finance records show. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News.

Cameron Lunch

Oliver built on work by Sustain Chairman Mike Rayner, an Oxford University professor who has modeled the effect of food taxes. Other groups, including the British Dental Association and the British Dietetic Association, have pushed for a tax, but the celebrity chef catapulted the issue into the mainstream.

His meeting with Cameron was one of several, including two round tables with policy makers and a family lunch at the prime minister’s country residence, Chequers, to try to persuade him to tackle what health campaigners say is an obesity crisis. As of 2014, 28 percent of British adults were obese, compared with 34 percent of Americans.

Oliver came armed with other statistics. A third of children in the U.K. leave primary school obese. Rates of type-2 diabetes, often caused by excess sugar consumption, have risen 60 percent in the past decade. The disease costs Britain’s National Health Service 9 billion pounds a year.

Oliver spent months filming the effects of the country’s sweet tooth for a TV documentary called “Sugar Rush” that aired in September 2015. He showed a 5-year-old boy in an operating room getting multiple teeth extracted because he drank too much soda.

Together with Sustain, Oliver started a petition calling on the government to tax soft drinks with added sugar, citing studies showing they’re the largest source of the sweetener for British school children and teenagers. More than 155,000 people signed by last fall, surpassing the 100,000 needed to prompt a parliamentary debate.

In October, Oliver testified before the House of Commons committee on health. Dressed in jeans, a grey button-down shirt and a navy blazer, Oliver walked in and plunked down a cardboard box full of Coke, Pepsi and Gatorade. He’d devised his own labels showing the number of teaspoons of sugar in each -- as many as 14 -- arguing it was the only way people could understand how much they consume.

School Food

“I don’t want business being put before child health -- over my dead body,’’ Oliver told the assembled lawmakers. “I don’t care that I am going to get a rattling by industry. I was born in the industry. I was born in a pub. Industry can’t run this country.”

Oliver, who left school at 16 and learned how to cook in his parents’ pub, isn’t a policy wonk, but he made a name for himself by pushing for healthier school lunches. He promoted the campaign through documentaries called “Jamie’s School Dinners” in 2005, charting his efforts to get children to eat things like salad and stop kitchens from serving meals such as Turkey Twizzlers -- spiral strips of processed meat.

Even for fans of his school-lunch crusade, Oliver’s tax push was labeled by Conservative politicians and industry observers as a step toward a nanny state. Oliver unfairly singles out sugary drinks instead of looking at the need for balanced diets, industry lobbyists argue.

“As a parent, I would say Jamie Oliver deserves a fair bit of credit for his efforts over the years,’’ said Partington, the British Soft Drinks Association chief, in October 2015. “I just think on this particular issue he’s got it slightly wrong. He’s been led by the health lobby to focus on this one ingredient and one product category.”

Fearing he was losing the fight, Oliver used his celebrity profile to warn the government he wasn’t going away. In a February 2016 TV interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., he threatened to “go ninja” and vowed he’d try to push Cameron out of office if he didn’t go ahead with a sugar tax, urging him to act “as a parent, not a politician.”

Blue Scooter

When Osborne announced the tax in March, Oliver was as surprised as anyone. He hopped on his blue Velocifero scooter, zipped across the River Thames to stand before the Houses of Parliament and post a Facebook Live video to his 6 million followers. Cameron and Osborne declined to comment.

While May has pledged to push the tax through Parliament, Oliver remains disappointed that she backed away from Cameron’s and Osborne’s broader anti-obesity plan, which included reining in advertising and mandating sugar reductions in food products. At a Facebook Live event in October, he urged supporters to send May a message on social media to be bolder, using the hashtag #TellTheresa.

“I think she doesn’t get it,” Oliver said about May’s plan to tackle childhood obesity. “I feel let down.”

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