In the documentary “Fed Up,” Katie Couric and Laurie David depict America’s sugar-saturated food system in ways that are at once startling and all too familiar. It reveals why Americans have such a hard time following the governmental advice to use sugar “sparingly.”
Over the last three decades, Americans have doubled the percent of their grocery budget directed toward sweets and processed foods (by 2012, those items represented nearly one-fourth of total household grocery expenditures). Of the 600,000 food items sold in the United States, 80 percent have added sugars (that go by more than 50 different names).
Food corporations spend millions calculating the precise “mouth feel” and “bliss point” that will entice people to return repeatedly to their brand. Recent brain research shows that the carefully mixed cocktails of sugar, fat and salt in industrial foods are highly addictive.
“Processed food is far more powerful than we ever realized,” observes former U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. David Kessler in “Fed Up.” “Our brains are constantly getting hijacked.” Sugars stimulate the same pleasure responses in the brain as drugs and alcohol. A study with cocaine-addicted lab rats found that 40 out of 43 rats chose sugar water over cocaine.
Food corporations use this biochemical response to maximal advantage, exploiting our innate taste for sweet foods. Soda companies, writes Michael Moss in “Salt Sugar Fat,” refer internally to their most loyal customers as “heavy users,” suggesting that they knowingly cultivate sugar junkies.
The tactics that processed food manufacturers employ – paying for favorable research, discrediting critics, using deceitful advertising, and denying health risks – are similar to those tobacco companies used to get people hooked on cigarettes. And with good reason: Of the 10 vast corporations that control 90 percent of food produced in the United States (think Kraft, Nabisco, Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Nestle, etc.), several have been held by Philip Morris or R.J. Reynolds.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture supports processed-food manufacturers by subsidizing the production of corn (converted to high fructose corn syrup) and sugar. Repeatedly, Congress and the USDA have squelched nutritional reform efforts, opting instead to let the food and beverage industry “self-regulate.”
Thanks to corporate lobbying, sugar is the lone item on “nutrition facts” labels that has no recommended daily allowance. Similarly, soda manufacturers can call a 20-ounce bottle – typically guzzled at once – “2.5 servings,” and list a “serving” of Oreo cookies as “3.4 grams” (out of an 11.3 ounce package – good luck calculating how that translates to actual cookies!) Yet the labels don’t reveal more meaningful weights: Would people really feed their children Fruit Loops, Cap’n Crunch and Golden Crisp cereal if they knew those products were – by weight – between 40 and 52 percent sugar?