Sugar is the new villain in public health, thanks in part to Fed Up, a documentary narrated by news anchor Katie Couric and now playing in select cities. The film traces the link between sugar and our most urgent health problems, but especially targets the substance’s effect on childhood obesity, which has more than doubled in the past 30 years.
Food can no longer be dismissed as niche news. It’s universal, vital, and urgent, and Fed Up drives that point home.
As author and food critic Michael Pollan puts it in the film, our government is “subsidizing” the obesity epidemic by allowing excessive amounts of sugar to be added to everyday processed foods, with corporations profiting from the enormous scale of the crisis.
It is not a wildly original notion that government and corporate interests collude at the expense of the public, but Fed Up uses the clout of its various talents—Laurie David, who produced An Inconvenient Truth, is also one of this film’s executive producers—to show us, in vivid infographic detail, just how dire the condition of our national health really is.
If people out there still doubt sugar’s destructive effect on our bodies, Fed Up will definitely change their minds (and eating habits). Especially when they learn that sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine, or that it takes a 110-pound child 75 minutes of bike riding to burn off the calories in one 20-ounce bottle of soda, a fact also found on the film’s website.
Such nutritional data abound in Fed Up, but the film really packs a punch when it gets political. Who would have thought that Katie Couric would criticize Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative, which aims to reduce childhood obesity, for bowing down to food industry CEOs and subsequently watering down any regulatory policy that would have restricted marketing junk food to kids? Or ask President Clinton point-blank why his administration failed to improve childhood health despite pledges at the time to do so?
Those moments in the film inspire some appreciation, at least toward Couric, who puts her journalistic muscle behind a cause that some might dismiss as trivial; after all, mainstream headlines about nutrition are usually reserved for women’s health and fitness magazines.
But food can no longer be dismissed as niche news. It’s universal, vital, and urgent, and Fed Up drives that point home.
Fed Up is more than a cry against sugar; it’s a call to investigate the very substance and system that is making us sick.
And, of course, sugar is political: The National School Lunch Act, signed into law by President Truman in 1946, was established to provide better nutrition to kids in need via low-cost or free lunches, but was drastically reduced in scope when President Reagan slashed its budget, infamously qualifying condiments like ketchup as vegetables in order to meet nutritional requirements. Now, years later, many schools depend on private funding to feed their students. Large corporations that manufacture sugary beverages like Pepsi and Coca-Cola lobby schools for contracts—and have secured deals with 88 percent of them, according to the film.
The reality may be disconcerting, but the future is pretty promising. Unlike other areas of food justice where the solutions seem buried underneath an overwhelming pile of bureaucracy and collusion, lowering our individual sugar consumption can be simple. Make no mistake that we still need to overhaul our food system, and we still need to work for food equity. Cooking at home might not directly reduce food deserts, control processed food manufacturers from marketing to our kids, or protect us from health risks posed by industrial agriculture. But it will educate us, spiritually as well as intellectually, and remind us which direction we want our food system to be growing.
Fed Up is more than a cry against sugar; it’s a call to investigate the very substance and system that is making us sick, and to realize that the healthy lives we want are closer than we think.
Erin Sagen is a freelancer and former associate editor at YES! She lives in Seattle and writes about food, health, and suburban sustainability.