All words: Toni Tileva
In recent years, a number of powerful food documentaries have set out to pull the proverbial wool from our eyes and expose big agriculture and the Monsanto monster for what it is. Despite the glut of information available, however, making sense of the piecemeal data can be confounding. Fed Up, directed by Stephanie Soechtig and narrated by Katie Couric, is a rather cogent contribution despite covering some familiar ground.
Fed Up focuses on childhood obesity and its concomitant illnesses: Type 2 Diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Type 2 Diabetes amongst adolescents has gone from being non-existent in the ’80s to a staggering number of 57,638 cases today. The film follows three teenagers as they struggle to lose weight.
The film does an admirable job of definitively hammering the nail into the coffin of the “eat less, exercise more” myth of weight loss that has permeated public consciousness for so long. The fallacy of “all calories are the same” is conclusively laid to rest here as well, using the example of a soft drink vs. almonds, the fiber in which causes them to be digested qualitatively differently and cause much less of a spike in blood sugar and insulin levels. Similarly to sodas, juices also have no fiber, and the film argues that they’re essentially the same (makes you want to toss your Odwallas, huh?). With that, Fed Up also aims to squarely take on the personal responsibility model of obesity and supplant it by the disease model of drug addiction. “Food addiction is a biological fact,” states one of the many pundits in the film. In the same way that drugs can hijack neural pathways, so can hyper palatable foods (the study of the cocaine-addicted rats who consistently chose sugar water over cocaine is referenced).
So, what is making us fat? Fed Up points the finger at sugar, while also addressing the other co-variables. In 1977, the McGovern Report, strongly cautioned against the consumption of refined sugars. The sugar lobby fought vehemently against these standards, in the end succeeding in their removal from the report. The 1980s saw the rise of America’s obsession with a low-fat diet. The fat, predictably, was replaced with sugar. Since 1977, daily consumption of sugar has doubled. There are currently 600,000 products in the marketplace with sugar in them. The pundits in the movie do bring up a very hotly-contested topic — namely, they argue that a sugar calorie *is* a sugar calorie. Essentially, honey is just as bad as high-fructose corn syrup, they argue. While not exactly scientifically confirmed beyond doubt, this is certainly food for thought. Another fallout of the low-fat fixation: the explosion of the cheese industry. Once all the fat was removed from milk to make it skim, the dairy industry, in a stroke of Machiavellian genius, ramped up its cheese production, and spun cheese into the new “protein food,” causing a huge spike in cheese sales.
Fed Up argues that while the food lobby is incredibly powerful, the sugar lobby is especially so because with the creation of cheap additives like high-fructose corn syrup, the companies had a vested interested in keeping America (and especially its children) sugar-addicted. One of the scariest statistics in the film (and there were quite a few) is that we should be consuming between 6-9 teaspoons of sugar a day, and most American easily eat 4 times that amount. When the World Health Organization released its 916 TRS report in 2002, it unequivocally identified sugar as the cause of most metabolic diseases and set the limit to 10 percent of calories as sugar consumption. By the time (surprise) the food lobby was done with this, the WHO was forced to amend that to the alarmingly high 25 percent.
Fed Up also thoroughly explores the inherent conflict of interest facing the USDA: they must safeguard public health yet promote the food industry. It also delves into the bigger structural forces at play: how budget cuts in the National School Lunch Program during the Reagan era caused most school cafeterias to purchase their meals from fast food companies and not prepare food themselves. Fed Up takes a hard look at Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, which while well-intentioned, just did not have the teeth to stand up to the food company lobby which quickly cried out with reductionistic “Nanny State” objections. By focusing mostly on one half of the problem, exercise, it largely ignored just how badly the deck is stacked against children’s ability to make sensible food choices. As one speaker put it rather succinctly, “Junk is still junk even if it is less junky.” The companies paid only so much lip service to improving their products, the film argues. Junk food marketing, especially to children, remained egregiously non-curtailed.
Not every data point in Fed Up is ground-breaking, but its focus on sugar certainly is. Ultimately, the film argues that as long as we allow private profit to be in charge of public health, we are in trouble, but knowing the facts about what one is eating is a sure first step in revolutionizing food industry and our role in it.