Close to the end of a recent news conference in a Manhattan hotel to promote Fed Up, a new documentary about sugar-laden processed foods’ role in perpetuating an epidemic of obesity and related health issues in the United States, executive producers Laurie David and Katie Couric got to the good stuff: their own food confessions.
“I started working in television in the late 70s, when the whole fat-free, low-fat craze surfaced, and I remember, vividly, going to the grocery store and being so excited that there were [fat-free] Snackwells, that I could eat cookies and it wouldn’t really matter,” said Couric, who also narrates the film, and who initially approached director Stephanie Soechtig (Tapped) after covering the obesity epidemic in her role as a television journalist. “I think that programmed me for most of my adult life, to pick low-fat everything — I mean, peanut butter, mayonnaise, you name it, if it said low-fat, I grabbed it, all the time. Why would I want full-fat, if there was low-fat option? And now I realize, well yeah, it’s half the fat, but twice the sugar.”
David, best known for executive producing the 2006 documentary about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, spoke next.
“If I could take back every chicken finger, french fry, goldfish [cracker], and those Go-gurts that I gave my kids … I want to take it all back, but anyway, you can’t,” she confessed. “For me, my own personal diet, the hardest thing to give up has been cereal because I love that crunch, but now I know all about cereal. You know what I crunch on now? Seeds. Seeds and nuts.”
In between interviews with the likes of Bill Clinton and Senator Tom Harkin, and self-filmed video diaries of overweight teens and their families, Fed Up presents the kinds of alarming facts meant to scare viewers into making better choices.
There are now more than 50,000 diagnosed cases of Type 2 diabetes, once known as “adult-onset” diabetes, among children between the ages of eight and 19 in the United States. In the past 20 years, the United States government has provided more than $8 billion in subsidies for corn-based sweeteners. Americans have doubled their daily intake of sugar since 1977. In one study of 43 cocaine-addicted lab rats, 40 of them chose sugar water over cocaine. One in three Americans is now overweight or obese; and even some of those within the range of normal weight can be what Dr. Jimmy Bell of London’s Imperial College calls “TOFI”: thin on the outside, fat on the inside, with one’s internal organs surrounded by the layers of fat that increase the risk factors for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, dementia, and cancer.
“This is how the food industry kind of manipulates the consumer,” said Dr. Mark Hyman, one of several physicians interviewed in the film, who offered no examples of his own food missteps at the news conference. “Everyone is saying “eat whole grains.” So there’s Cookie Crisp cereal, a whole grain version, but it’s whole grain corn flour, and it’s got 22 grams of sugar in a serving. I mean, sugar is the new fat, basically.”
Or is it?
“Sugar is the new tobacco,” said Sarah Wilson, an Australian journalist and wellness coach, in an emailed interview. “Fat was never the issue. The sugar disaster we are now witnessing stemmed from the vilification of saturated fat from the 1960s onward. Flawed science led us to believe and follow incorrect nutritional advice, which food manufacturers came to take full advantage of. They took saturated fat out, and filled everything with sugar. The [food] industry, government, and consumers — we're all addicted to sugar.”
Wilson, whose first book, I Quit Sugar, was published in the U.S. last month, said that before she faced her own sugar addiction in 2011, her typical intake of low-fat yogurt, fresh and dried fruit, freshly squeezed juice, “healthy” snack bars, and honey to sweeten her afternoon tea amounted to at least 25 teaspoons per day.
New York Times opinion columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman, who was also interviewed in the film, said that despite the grim statistics, he has some reason to feel optimistic.
“My gut, for what it’s worth, says that we’ve seen the bottom,” he said. “We’ve had two generations of kids grow up with official misguidance on nutrition and a complete lack of limits on the efforts of food marketers. Now, the fact that you’re seeing serious consideration being given to warning labels on cans of soda in the state of California is just amazing. Somewhere in the near future, we’re going to see a breakthrough on this.”
Bittman admitted to a small amount of unhealthy snacking when going to the movies.“Fifty percent of the time I’ll smuggle in my own popcorn, which I’ve popped in oil and seasoned with probably an unconscionable amount of salt, but no butter, mostly because I’m too lazy. The other 50 percent of the time, anything can happen, from zero to buying popcorn to maybe a pack of Twizzlers.” Did he ever succumb to the low-fat snack craze?
“If you’re asking if I ever bought Snackwells, the answer is no.”