St Helena Online

Cut-price foods that left island with a bulging health problem

St Helena no longer has the highest incidence of type-2 diabetes in the world, but that’s only because it’s got even worse elsewhere. Cheap imports of sweet milk and rice may have kept Saints from starvation in harder times, but now the island’s health service is struggling with the consequences, says MIKE THORPE. A target for treating diabetics has been met, but another has not. 

The scale of diabetes on St Helena is hardly surprising when you look at the past in relation to this disease.

The government used to subsidise sugar, rice, flour, cheese, lard and evaporated milk, and control the price of bread. The staple diet some thirty years ago was curry and rice or fish and rice, maybe some cabbage. Tea was always served with lots of sugar and neat evaporated milk.

The wages were low and a treat was a tin of peaches – with more evaporated milk. For a drink, the children were given a syrup that was a mixture of sugar, water, citric acid and food colouring, which was diluted with more water.

Because these products were subsidised, that was all people could afford to live on.

The slaves that landed on the island and stayed were the ones that might not have survived the journey to the Americas, so not the healthiest stock to start with.

I have been asking for ages if someone will DNA-test the island before we get all mixed up with the influx from the airport: diabetes runs in families.

The government subsidies worked as a short-term fix, but I’m not sure it has helped in the long run.

Diabetes target ‘unlikely to be met’

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