FED UP: How what should have been an important movie missed the mark

Posted by
May 29, 2014


By James S. Turner,

Board Chair, Citizens for Health

FED UP, a fast-paced documentary co-produced and narrated by ABC News icon Katie Couric, effectively presents repeated food industry actions taken against the best interest of children.The film deserves kudos for reporting how, by combining powerful lobbying of government with profit- maximizing strategies, the food business undermines the health of children and families and how the obesity and diabetes epidemics have followed in the wake of repeated food-industry market-building initiatives.

But there’s a lot that’s missing here – and some aspects of this movie that are genuinely misleading. And that’s why, as a depiction of where we currently are as a society coping with the results of a food industry largely run amok, FED UP leaves one with the feeling of a missed opportunity.

 Here is the story.

In 1981, his first year as president, Ronald Reagan, lobbied heavily by the food industry, cut $1.8 billion from the school-lunch program.  Across the country schools sold their cooking equipment and replaced their in-school cooked meals with fast food from companies like McDonald’s. Simultaneously, junk food began turning up as secondary products in gas stations, office supply stores, movie theatres, and other non-food businesses as well as on supermarket shelves.  Both childhood and adult obesity and diabetes rose in direct proportion to the spread of this business model.

The film describes food industry manipulation of well-intended reforms. The food business turned such initiatives into ways to sell more junk. It spun efforts to stem the tide of disease and disability spread by the commercial debasement of food into sales slogans.  The late Sen. George McGovern, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs in the 1960s and ‘70s and an advocate of nutritional dietary guidelines, is shown lamenting food lobbyists redoing his reforms into key parts of their disease-spreading business promotions.

Bemused power brokers address the camera.  The Agriculture Secretary calls ketchup a vegetable in law but not in his house; a former FDA commissioner, who says humanity’s future is at stake, worries about decisions made—or not—during his tenure; courts block befuddled billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s limits on supersize fast-food drinks; consumer and scientist advocates, investigative journalists, Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Tom Harkin, and former President Bill Clinton are shown impotently griping into the mike about powerlessness.  Angst grips the witnesses.

A different angst, in narratives from children suffering the alleged harms of modern food, punctuates the power-broker bewilderment. The food these kids eat presents heart-wrenching choices—teasing, lost friends, surgery, hiding. The plight of these children attests to the fact that abstract food debates affect real lives.  As Manohla Dargis’s New York Times review notes, “…their participation can feel borderline exploitative.”  Viewers can make that call.  The narratives are powerful.

Using reflective interviews with real players and films from as long as 50 years ago, FED UP weaves these themes—impotent powerbrokers, “powerful” children;  home/community grown and cooked food versus factory food;  industrial versus natural ingredients—into a story. The 1960s villainized fat. The 1970s created flavorless, fat-free food. 1980s food manufacturers used sweetness (called “sugar” or “sugary” consistently throughout the film) to make the defatted, flavor-depleted foods palatable.

 Filling two-thirds of Washington, DC’s E Street Cinema’s smallest theatre, the audience laughed, chortled, and even gasped at key points and gave a heartfelt round of applause at the end of the film.It also seemed that fewer- than-usual snack boxes and beverage containers littered the empty house at show’s end.Kudos for eleven bucks well spent, and a good time had by all – or at least a gratifying one of duty done.

Caveat: As The Times’ Dargis points out, the film is filled with “sugary” cartoon villains, including “Big Sugar”. Problem:  the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that Americans consumed the same amount of sugar per capita in 2009 (latest figures) as they did in 1909—no sugar explosion here.  Ninety-five percent of “sugary sodas,” contain no sugar.  Many “bad” foods like Oreos contain no sugar.  High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), often with excess fructose, sweetens them.  Perhaps “Big Syrup” would be a better name for the villain in this movie.

Consumers more savvy than reformers

Ironically, FED UP shows the food industry undercutting the last generation’s food reformers, then joins in undercutting today’s reformers. It does this by embracing the Corn Refiners Association’s $100 million advertising fable that brands all caloric sweeteners as being both identical and “sugar.” When research showed obesity and diabetes rising with HFCS sales, its sales dropped, showing that the public, a good food-fight ally, understands a lot more than it is given credit for. When The CRA asked the FDA to rename HFCS “corn sugar.” The latter, with 30,000 public comments against it, refused.   Nonetheless, the CRA continued to step up its all-sugar-is-the-same routine.

The CRA persisted with ads calling HFCS “sugar”. Now FED UP leads today’s food reformers in spreading the industry group’s false “sugary” tale.  It lumps all sweeteners together and calls them “sugar”. At the same time it argues that all calories are not the same.  It knows that there are different kinds of fats.  But when it comes to sweeteners, they are all identical and they are all “sugar”.  In his blog “5 reasons HFCS will kill you,” Mark Hyman, an on-camera expert in the movie, quotes Harry Truman as saying “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.” Fed UP, unfortunately, joins the CRA in confusing the issue.

But there is even more to that story: Back in 1981, skirting FDA doubts, HFCS began its ascent to becoming America’s dominant caloric sweetener. In that same year  Ronald Reagan’s newly appointed FDA commissioner blocked a Public Board of Inquiry ban on aspartame (NutraSweet), making that chemical the top non-caloric sweetener.  In clinical trials, NutraSweet use preceded female weight gain.  Donald Rumsfeld, NutraSweet company president, served on President Reagan’s transition team.   That team chose the Reagan Administration’s FDA commissioner, a former consultant to the Defense Department during Rumsfeld’s term as Secretary of Defense in the Ford Administration. That commissioner overturned the ban on Rumsfeld’s billion-dollar artificial sweetener.

The 1981 sweetener events reinforce the film’s message:  Food is political.  That message is “not subtle,” says Mark Bittman, the provocative New York Times Food Politics writer, celebrity cook-at-home chef, and FED UP performer/endorser. Caveat:  politics is subtle and subtlety matters.  Grasping political subtleties helps turn isolated consumers into effective activists.  Some food companies spin the public with false ads, industrial sweeteners, and fake flavors, colors, and textures.  Our health suffers. Informed FED UP watchers can counter this manipulation by remembering the correlation between rising obesity/diabetes rates and HFCS sales. Time, research, and markets will tell how much this correlation matters.

The talking heads in this movie know the HFCS story. They say in blogs, interviews, and court documents that they believe HFCS adds to obesity and diabetes and is digested differently from real sugar.   Dr.  Hyman calls HFCS a “killer” and advises consuming sugar in moderation but avoiding HFCS totally. Another scientist shown told a court that the body metabolizes HFCS in dangerously different ways than it does sugar.  Surprisingly, very little of this information, which might soften a mother’s candy-versus-a-child’s-health choice, finds its way into Fed UP, and then only peripherally to its main focus on “sugary” villains.

Another subtlety: Sometimes a food company is not a complete villain. For example, companies as diverse as Subway, Pepsi, Chick-fil-A, Wal-Mart’s Wild Oats, and Whole Foods all identify HFCS as an “unwanted ingredient” in some or all of their products.  Board rooms and store aisles offer good food-fight venues. HFCS manufacturers set up their food company clients as targets by calling HFCS “sugar.” One judge dismissed a diabetic child’s case against HFCS makers, saying that they did not put the HFCS into food, food companies did.  Some food sellers might ally themselves with food reformers in their own self-interest before the lawsuits start targeting them, as the judge’s ruling suggests.

In another subtlety, FED UP shows the US Secretary of Agriculture disputing his own agency’s vegetable definition. When a person occupies a power seat, the power resides in the seat at least as much as in the person.  This subtlety complicates our food problem. President Clinton signed a law eliminating the warnings on saccharine, itself tagged as a weight promoter by some researchers.  An adviser to the former FDA commissioner featured in FED UP defended Monsanto’s NutraSweet —weight gain studies and all—on CBS’s 60 Minutes, then joined Monsanto as an in-house scientist.  On the Today show, Katie Couric hosted Monsanto touting NutraSweet. People in power seats perform virtually oblivious to the effects of their acts and virtually powerless to act differently.    

What didn’t make the cut                                                                                     

In 1970 I wrote The Chemical Feast: The Nader Report on Food Protection at FDA on industrial food.  During the next 30 years a coalition of natural, organic, and health-food manufacturers, stores and consumers promoted natural food as a consumer choice.  That coalition blocked the Federal Trade Commission’s attempt to ban the words “natural,” “organic,” and “health” from food products.  It stopped excessive FDA limits on consumer access to vitamin and mineral supplements.  It got Congress to allow previously banned health claims for food and to pass the Organic Food Production Act. 

These efforts to integrate the natural and industrial food sectors are part of the rest of the story that didn’t make it into this “expose” of the food industry.

On its second weekend, FED UP was featured at 55 theatres in 19 markets and placed 27th for weekend revenue with a respectable $3,346 gross per screen.  But its relatively small audience and mixed reviews seem to destine it, as one reviewer suggested, for likely rerelease as a TV special. 

One reviewer, Baylen Linnekin at Reason.com, describes “What Fed UP Gets Wrong About the Food Industry,” saying that the film “ claims to shine a critical light on the food industry and the ‘obesity epidemic’” but “ignores the real culprit,” government subsidies for farmers and food companies.  At Eater National (www.eater.com), Paula Forbes says “The Sugary Outrage of Fed UP Doesn’t Go Far Enough…,” referring to the movie as  “one of those bracing documentaries that gins up alternating feelings of despair, rage, and impotence.” 

FED UP touches the real world upheaval in people’s lives created by the forces of food industrialization and how those people work to tame those forces.  Efforts to promote locally and home-grown food, including organic and natural food stores and farmers’ markets go on every day, as do successful campaigns to pressure food companies and regulators to reformulate and accurately label food products. Scores of activists work diligently and joyfully to improve the quality of our diet and our awareness of what we eat. But those people and their efforts didn’t make it into the film, nor did tools the audience could use to advance the cause of better food.

So while consumers may be largely “fed up” with denatured, industrial food, they are equally disillusioned with the feelings of “despair, rage, and impotence” this film leaves us with — even while it sadly misses the mark on so many nutritional nuances and encouraging trends and reforms.

James S. Turner is a Washington DC based attorney and author.  He served as special counsel to Senator George McGovern’s Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. He wrote The Chemical Feast: The Nader Report on Food Protection at the FDA; and co-wrote Making Your Own Baby Food and Voice of the People: The Transpartisan Imperative in American Life.  He is Board Chair of Citizens for Health, a twenty year old consumer activist group one of whose projects, with the support of The Sugar Association, works to end consumer confusion about the differences between sugar and other sweeteners.