Check Your Sugar

Here's a brief update to my last blog entry, Sugar, Sugar, now that I've seen the movie Fed Up! and had a chance to process some of my thoughts.

This movie is an important public service because all of us need the smack in the head about sugar. Even those of us, like me, who are hyper conscious of what we're  eating, can learn from this movie. I appreciated the very simplified (almost dumbed down) scientific explanation of our bodies on sugar.  It made the reason to limit sugar much more clear.  The stories of the morbidly obese teens and families featured are compelling and heartbreaking, bringing me to tears more than once. I'm glad Paul saw it with me and I will take both my grown kids to see it when they're in town.

The experts interviewed are highly respected doctors, nutritionists, scientists and journalists. They are people who have been fighting this fight for many years. People like Margo Wootan of Center for Science in the Public Interest, Dr. David Kessler, a former head of the FDA who wrote The End of Overeating, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, the list goes on.


There is no way one can leave this movie without feeling compelled to change their diet and perhaps, try to change the world. This is a documentary with a very clear agenda and it is very persuasive. I truly believe that the future of the health of a large portion of our population is at risk, so maybe extreme measures are called for, but in this case I think the science and the facts are so strong that they really are persuasive without the extra little film tricks used.

Clips of representatives of the food companies are cut and pasted to make them look ridiculous. In the one instance that I noticed of a live interview with an industry representative, she was back lit unflatteringly in contrast with how the experts on the side of limiting sugar were lit, the Q and A was clearly cut and pasted and her interview sounds like it was done by a drone, not Katie Couric (full disclosure: although I differ greatly from her politically, I know the woman interviewed and respect her intellect, hard work, and her general commitment to doing good for others).

The movie also is pretty harsh on Michelle Obama and the turn Let's Move took a couple of years back towards emphasis on getting kids moving and away from the food they are eating. Politics intervened there and caused her to tone down the push on food companies and their very powerful lobby. Recently, now that the President is in his second term, she has helped get the USDA to issue a new crackdown on marketing to children and pushed the FDA get a proposal for a better food label out of its backlog. These are good things and I wrote about them here. I don't know to what extent knowledge that this movie would come out influence the timing of the Let's Move announcements in March, or if they would have occurred regardless.

There is a greater good that can be achieved by this movie despite it's somewhat heavy hand.  As I wrote yesterday, we should all be more conscious of the sugar hidden in our everyday foods.  We know when we eat desserts that we are eating sugar, but the reminder that sugar, in some cases in great amounts, is found in groceries used for breakfast and dinner is an important one. The sugared coffee drinks and free refill super sized soft drinks (organic or not) at every fast food place are filled with so many teaspoons of sugar that omitting those alone could help a person's health immensely.

In the free market economy that we know and love in our country, corporations with shareholders can not be expected to behave ethically just because it's the right thing to do.  They will offer full sugared sodas in massive containers alongside no sugar added products.  They will replace added sugar with some other chemical or substance that can harm us in ways we don't yet even know.  They are not our buddies, Tony Tiger, Dora the Explorer and Ronald McDonald and all the charitable donations McDonalds makes in his name notwithstanding. They are in business to make money. Marion Nestle, who appears in the movie, while speaking at George Washington University (GWU) a few weeks ago, questioned whether corporations with shareholders can even take social responsibility.

So we have to urge our government, our representatives in Congress to stop bending to the food lobbies and require the companies to do so.  We might not be able to expect the big food companies to watch out for our youth and our health, but we should expect that of our elected officials. We should demand it. Companies should not be allowed to market their unhealthy sugared cereals and snack foods and yogurts directly to children, and most importantly, these items should not be available in our schools.

For many at-risk children (according to Nestle, 10% of US kids are food insecure), the food they eat at school represents the bulk of the food they eat for the day. Our school districts think we're helping them by filling their stomachs with something, but we're filling their stomachs with sugar in any and every form: Orange juice, sodas, sweetened milk drinks, sugary breakfast cereals, white carbs, syrup, sweetened ketchup, the list is endless. This is perhaps the most upsetting part of the movie. For some people, the sugar (and fat) excess will result in obesity.  For others, the ill effects of an unhealthy diet might not show on the outside, but can still be causing the body to be fat on the inside and still lead to diabetes and heart disease.

I recently saw an episode of Anthony Bourdain's CNN show, Parts Unknown, in which he visited a school in  Lyon, France, where a chef made the 350 kids a lunch that I would happily pay to eat in a restaurant.  Pureed pumpkin soup, fish and vegetables and a light fruit dessert for the equivalent of $1.50 per child.  Here, most of our schools have taken out the food production facilities in most schools and use large food company suppliers to deliver ready to heat foods like pizza and cheeseburgers with fries instead.  These should be once in a while foods, that kids are now eating daily. Even where there are healthier options, if pizza and cheeseburgers are also offered, the kids will rarely choose the healthier meal. In Fed Up! one cafeteria worker summed it up when she bemoaned that they had only sold 25 healthier options out of the 300 + that the sold. When they're offered side by side, it is the unusual kid who will take the healthy choice.

In her talk at GWU, Nestle provided a long list of reasons that obesity went up in the '80s.  Some, but not all, are sugar related.  One item that she mentioned is that the price of fresh fruit and vegetables has gone up 30 - 40 % since 1980. This provides a challenge for many people on a limited budget.  Fed Up argues that in addition to being healthier to cook at home, that it's also cheaper.  While I am a zealot for cooking at home more, I'm not sure that I can wholeheartedly agree with this premise.  It is true that it's healthier to cook at home, and it's true that if you want to eat healthier foods, it is cheaper to cook at home, but at this time, fruits and vegetables are still pricey when compared to fast food. This is also an area that we should be encouraging our lawmakers to change. We have subsidies written into our farm bill that provide financial incentives for production of corn and soy and very little assistance to those growing vegetables for human consumption.

I will hope that the other reasons for the epidemic of obesity don't get lost in the publicity about sugar. The fear of fats is partly what got us here in the first place.  We don't want to substitute one problem for another again. And despite the film's criticism of the First Lady and Let's Move's emphasis on exercise, I do think exercise is also big part of staying healthy both individually and as a population.

So, see the movie. Accept that on the spectrum between polemic and documentary it veers slightly south of even treatment, and take away from it some of its passion on the issue. Go home and read labels, quit soda and cook at home more.

In the movie, Michael Pollan says "cook real food." We need to do that and also help others to do so, and most importantly, make sure places like schools and hospitals do so too. Our health is much too important to outsource to big food.