Diwali celebrations on Leicester's Golden Mile take centre stage in Keith Vaz's war on sugar

Leicester East MP denies being a 'killjoy' after asking for Coca-Cola Christmas truck not to visit city

Dean Kirby
Friday 06 November 2015 21:58 GMT
The busy Jalaram Sweet Centre in Leicester
The busy Jalaram Sweet Centre in Leicester (Andrew Fox)

With its twinkling lights and shops decorated with colourful garlands for the ancient Hindu festival of Diwali, Leicester’s Golden Mile might not be the most obvious battleground for Britain’s war on sugar.

But step inside one of the many Indian sweet shops along Belgrave Road and you will find yourself right on the frontline of the national debate on obesity and diabetes.

The Leicester East MP Keith Vaz, himself a diabetic, denied he was being a “killjoy” this week when he asked Coca-Cola not to bring its Christmas truck to the city and accused it of marketing a “real health hazard”.

It comes after two-thirds of doctors said they would support the introduction of a “sugar tax” – a levy on high-sugar foods and drinks in a bid to curb obesity.

Last year, Mr Vaz also called on Leicester schools to ban sugar in their meals and even urged David Cameron to join him in the “war on sugar” by giving up sugar for a day.

It is a view that is perhaps not readily supported by customers on the Golden Mile and where people were queuing in the rain outside sweet shops at lunchtime today.

Traditional Asian sweet shops say they would be ruined by a sugar tax
Traditional Asian sweet shops say they would be ruined by a sugar tax (Andrew Fox)

“Sugar has been part of our culture for 6,000 years,” said Ramesh Pabari at the Jalaram Sweet Centre on Melton Road, which has been selling the finest Indian sweets for 25 years. “People travel to my shop from as far away as London and Manchester, especially at this time of year, and we have around 2,000 customers a day.

“Keith Vaz is going the wrong way,” he added. “Sugar doesn’t make people obese. It’s people’s eating habits. If there was ever to be a tax on sugar, we’d have to charge our customers more for our sweets and it would kill our business.”

Customers at the busy shop were buying halwa and barfi sweets – and a selection of sugar-free sweets suitable for diabetics.

Vinesh Raja, 59, a retired professor who had travelled to the shop from Coventry, said: “Sweets are important in all cultures, although obesity is a problem. I do a lot of charity work and have been working with GPs to try to get the ingredients listed on Indian sweets so that people can understand their calorific value.

The Leicester East MP Keith Vaz
The Leicester East MP Keith Vaz (AFP/Getty Images)

“People are aware that sugar is harmful, but they need to know how much they are taking so that they can make informed decisions about it. If we can change that it will be good for the whole country.”

At the Kabhi Kabhi Sweetmart on the Golden Mile, some freshly made and delicious jalebi have just been put on display.

Manager Renuka Modha said: “Sugar is a really important ingredient in Indian cuisine and sweets are very important at this time of year. If people didn’t buy sweets, we wouldn’t have a business.”

An estimated 25,000 people in Leicester have diabetes, and about 55 per cent of the city’s adults are considered to be overweight or obese, according to official figures.

Council leaders launched a “fit for life” scheme last year aimed at encouraging healthy eating and said it would take a “sustained effort” to reduce obesity levels.

Mr Vaz, who was unavailable for comment today, has a long track record of campaigning on sugar in food and drink. He has made calls in Parliament for clearer food labelling to display sugar content, and has urged Coca-Cola to invest some of its profits for diabetes research.

The MP was accused of being “opportunistic” over the Christmas truck by a Tory councillor, Ross Grant, after pictures were shared on social media showing him opening a sweet shop on the Golden Mile two years ago.

Customers who were queuing at the Bhojalram sweets shop in Melton Road are likely to be among those left disappointed. Manager Chirag Thakar, 26, said: “People don’t tend to eat sweets every day, but they are so important at Diwali and for other special occasions. Everyone knows that too much sugar is bad for you, but sometimes it’s part of your culture, especially at this time of year.

“To be honest, I’d be disappointed if the Coca-Cola truck isn’t coming. It’s part of Christmas and it brings people into the city as well.”

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