Is Sugar the New Cigarettes? Fed Up, a New Sundance Film, Thinks So
Sixty years ago, Fred Flintstone hawked Winston cigarettes. Today, he pitches cereal. And both can kill.
© Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Stephanie Soechtig's rabble-rousing documentary Fed Up argues that it's time to attack Big Sugar just like we successfully demonized Big Tobacco. Narrated by Katie Couric, Fed Up is the first doc of Sundance to stir up an outraged Q&A with attendees agitating for nutritional reform: put new labels on processed foods, resurrect home economics classes, rally our leaders to combat the corporate Sugaristas, and screen Fed Up in schools across America.
The flick starts with a simple question. In 1977, George McGovern introduced the McGovern Report, which outlined healthy dietary goals for the country. Why, then, have Americans gotten fatter -- exponentially so, especially the young? In 1980, there were zero cases of childhood type 2 diabetes. In 2010, there were 57,636. "That used to be called adult-onset diabetes," sighs Bill Clinton. No longer. Now we have 9- and 10-year-old kids dying of heart attacks and strokes.
At this rate, in twenty years, 95 percent of the population will be obese, a crisis that affects every aspect of our country's stability from health care spending to national defense. A group of retired military leaders is so alarmed by our out-of-shape society that they've issued a warning study called "Too Fat to Fight." At that point in the screening, the slender actresses to the right of me tsk-tsked, but then Fed Up dropped a bomb: 40 percent of thin people are also fat, their internal organs padded with enough damaging blubber that they may as well be clinically obese. Behold, our new national paranoia: TOFI, or Thin Outside, Fat Inside.
Quickly, Soechtig dismisses the common wisdom that fat people are fat because they're gluttonous and lazy. We meet 200-pound-plus kids like 13-year-old Wesley, whose mom monitors his servings of Special K chips, and 12-year-old Maggie, who swims, rows and walks. They're trying, but the scale isn't moving. In my generation, as a child of the '80s, there used to be one or two Maggies in a grade. Now there's a dozen. And the problem started when we tried to get healthy.
Fed Up traces back the last 35 years and makes a convincing case that big business is to blame. (When isn't it?) The food industry responded to the McGovern Report by flooding the grocery aisles with "healthy" chips, cookies, drinks, and cereals that cut fat while quietly upping the sugar. Since then, sugar consumption has doubled. It's not because we're pounding down the pound cakes -- a breakfast of orange juice and a bowl of processed cereal maxes out our ideal sugar intake for the rest of the day. Sugar increases insulin, insulin increases fat storage. And it's addictive. In a study Soechtig quotes, 93 percent of lab rats chose sugar water over cocaine.
Judging by the audience reaction as Soechtig detailed the many lost battles that have attempted to regulate the sugar industry, Fed Up is poised to be the Inconvenient Truth of the health movement. (Which makes sense -- producer Laurie David worked on both.) Why have we allowed the USDA, whose job it is to sell food, pretend to be the voice of nutritional wisdom? Why is it okay that pizza sauce and french fries are legally considered vegetables? Why aren't we loudly mocking junk food shills like the McDonalds rep who, while testifying in a failed hearing about banning advertising for children, deadpanned, "We don't market to children. Ronald McDonald informs and inspires by magic and fun." Where's their Thank You for Smoking, and can we please call it Thank You for Snacking?
After the film, I went to my condo and grabbed the cookie dough I'd been planning to bake. There were the lies and dodges that we've passively permitted for decades: a nutritional label that lists the daily percent of Vitamin A in one cookie (2 percent) but obfuscates the sugar by merely mentioning the number of grams, 11 (that's 55 percent). Not only did the package boast it had no trans fat, it even brazenly touted that a cookie and a glass of milk made a "wholesome snack." Imagine a warning label there instead. Now imagine what that could do.
Amy Nicholson is reporting on the Sundance Film Festival for the Observer. Follow her on Twitter at @theamynicholson.