In defense of “Fed Up”

By: Stephanie Diamond

Recently fueling the vilification of the food industry is Katie Couric’s documentary Fed Up (2014). It is reminiscent of Food Inc. (2008) but more focused, pointed at packaged food manufacturers, and frankly, better done.

There are three players – consumers, government, and industry. When it comes to an obese population, consumers blame the government for not being stringent enough in regulating industry; government blames industry for producing unhealthy food; industry blames consumers for their lack of willpower. While emphasizing the deplorable state of obesity in America, Fed Up overwhelmingly focuses on the industry aspect, digging in to the overuse of sugar in packaged foods. Dr. Mark Hyman even mocks the popular sentiment that “It’s your fault you’re fat.”

I’ve worked for food companies, and when it comes to controversial topics such as this I have historically defended industry. In some ways I agree that consumers drive the market and food companies fulfill that market space. A similar story can be told for any product that indirectly harms humans or the environment – SUVs, video games, Styrofoam take-out boxes.

I also don’t agree with the film’s hyperbolic position on sugar. It leads with the sensational argument that sugar is more addicting than cocaine. The dopamine-generating response and portions of the brain that are activated by addictive drugs similarly light up during a brain scan when a person eats sugar. Well, yeah. Aren’t we supposed to be chemically addicted to sugar? Humans are physiologically wired to eat food for survival. The same responses are triggered by “procreation”, we’ll say, and breastfeeding. The point is moot.

There are several other parts of the movie I don’t agree with – like the instructions to not buy a food product if you can’t pronounce an ingredient (although I get that they are encouraging people to buy whole fruits, vegetables, and grains with that recommendation). But something the film does really well, is raise important issues and points out major flaws in the food system. A few are as follows:

The current state of childhood obesity –

This is something that matters. This calls for industry to put its fists down, admit playing a role in the obesity issue, and do more about it. Food companies are not the sole cause of an obese population, but the industry plays an important role in the obesity narrative.  Strides have certainly been made over the past decade. I applaud the industry for its attentiveness to the issue, but it’s not enough.

School Lunches –

Although school lunch budgets have increased over the past 20 years, there are still enormous problems that exist with legislature and options in school lunch programs. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (2010) made some strides in at least giving school lunches attention – mandating fruit and vegetable options, increasing portions of whole grains, and having chefs focus on lowering fat and sodium. The problem here is that the success of these initiatives are immeasurable. Simply offering fruits and vegetables when they are positioned alongside foods like pizza and cheeseburgers completely changes the story. I question if having fruit and vegetable options will really make a difference at all, particularly for children who are already obese, who have already gotten to that point because of a poor diet. Relying on the will-power of kids is pretty unrealistic.

Marketing unhealthy foods to kids –

Grossly unhealthy products that are specifically targeted toward children exist in the marketplace. That is an inarguable fact. I’m not advocating for complete removal of these products from shelves, but the proportion of store shelf space they take up is too large. The CFBAI (Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative) made a tiny dent in this issue by improving some nutrition criteria for kids’ products. I think a better approach, which has been adopted already by many food companies, is creating healthy products that take up more shelf space and more of the market share than their unhealthy alternatives. This would mean food companies pouring more dollars into developing these products.

Watching this movie as a food scientist made me think critically about my future role in the food industry. The movie features an impressive line-up of commentators and experts: Michael Pollen, Michael Bloomberg, Bill Clinton, and esteemed physicians. It features an underwhelming amount of food and nutrition scientists. I think this is really exemplary of the role scientists play, or they feel they play, in this whole controversy. As food scientists, we should be trained in both nutrition and food functionality. This is our expertise, and we don’t even have a seat at the table in this discussion.

The backseat role food scientists have assumed has manifested itself in more ways than this. A combative population that is fearful of food additives has gained incredible traction, and the food science community is suddenly realizing that it failed at communicating with the public. Have we also failed at nourishing a population by developing unhealthy products for kids? Food scientists are an integral part of the food development process and therefore, contributors to the problem.

I realize my views may be somewhat idealistic. But I implore any scientist, engineer, or developer reading this to take this movie seriously. Once you get past some of the pseudo-science and defaming of the food industry, there is an important message there: The food industry in its current state is not providing adequate nourishment. As scientists, comprising a critical part of the product development process, we are in a powerful position to invoke change.


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  1. I like the position you took and realizing the need for change. I’d be curious on your stance regarding the debate of processed foods.

  2. Great post, Stephanie! You make a great observation about the lack of food science professionals in these documentaries. I hope that we begin to have a more pro-active approach to communication about the science in our food supply.

  3. Very well done. It’s easy to get into an us-vs-them position on issues like this, and I really admire your willingness to be critical of the food system and industry rather than just find fault with the film.

    IMHO a lot of the questions we face are as much about how we feel about capitalism as they are about specific foods.

    • Thank you. I hadn’t thought about the defense of capitalism wrapped up in the food debate before, but I think you are absolutely right. Striking a balance between what we can make and what we should make is a huge challenge.

    • In agreement with John, I found your article to be interesting and your critique of the film to be unbiased and fair while pointing out the main flaws in the food retain industry.
      As a student studying Food Retail Management, I found it particularly interesting that there is a lack of involvement of Food Science professionals during the making of these types of documentaries as well as the fact that all of the major flaws in the food industry link back to children. Currently, it has become imperative to teach and encourage development of healthy eating habits and consumer education from a young age in order to break this unhealthy cycle which resonates into adulthood. Would you agree that Food Professionals such as Jamie Oliver who focus on healthy eating education of schoolchildren as well as other worldwide initiatives will play a major role in solving this issue? 15037755

  4. Would you also ask “Aren’t we chemically supposed to be addicted to alcohol?” I don’t think you proved the point is mute when it comes to sugar and addiction. I do applaud you for asking “Have we also failed at nourishing a population by developing unhealthy products for kids?”

    • I would disagree with saying she didn’t prove the point is moot. Honestly it is a weak argument to say that sugar is addictive because it lights up the reward center in the brain. So many compounds and actions, including alcohol- as you point out- or breast feeding as the author details, cause this neurological reaction. Not everyone is addicted to alcohol and I am not sure if I have ever heard of people being addicted to breast feeding. Interpreting data this way is a classic case of seeing correlation as causation. Addictive substances may commonly cause the release of dopamine in the brain but that does not mean that everything that causes this is addictive. Human physiology is incredibly complicated so there is likely more at play than this in substance addiction.

  5. I will still like to emphasize will-power in the fight against obesity.What predisposed one to obesity is the penchant for foods laden with fats and at times sugar and thus I strongly agree with the notion that ”If you are fat,it’s your fault.” The emphasis now should be ”eatiing right,” enlighten consumers to control food intake and engage in healthy lifestyles.

  6. “I question if having fruit and vegetable options will really make a difference at all, particularly for children who are already obese, who have already gotten to that point because of a poor diet. Relying on the will-power of kids is pretty unrealistic.”

    I work for a medium sized food company as a food scientist. We are fortunate in that the owners of the company provide free meals for the employees. Breakfast is available (cereal, hot cereal, toaster stuff like bagels, bread, etc.) Lunch is cooked every day (protein, starch, vegetable, salad, fruit) and most telling of all, there is a stack of fresh fruit available in the break room at all hours.

    Oranges, apples (several varieties), bananas, mangoes, and seasonal fruits are on hand at all times.

    Keep in mind, all of this is free for the taking. For some time, the owners of the company brought in doughnuts. There’s about 50 of us here and they would bring in 4 dozen doughnuts daily.

    The fruit sat. The doughnuts vanished. This is from a group where all the management and office staff have worked in the food industry for decades. They have been drilled several dozen times about healthy eating, healthy choices, “healthy workplace” initiatives, company exercise programs, and all that stuff.

    No cost involved. No pressure from outsiders. No pressure from peers. Just a pile of fruit and 4 boxes of doughnuts. Doughnuts won, every time.

    Eventually the owners stopped bringing in doughnuts every day and now they only show up on Friday’s (where they vanish almost as soon as they hit the table).

    You can’t offer a salad and an apple with lunch when you still have pizza and fries on the menu. You need to take out the pizza and fries.

  7. Blame should not be placed purely on the kids or the food industry. Children don’t have will power and are heavily influenced by their peers and especially on their parents. More look into the eating habits of adults should be investigated. You cannot just offer children good food they also need to be educated in better eating habits. This will allow the food industry to make the changes that they are being pressured into. Not just one aspect of society is involved in the obesity crises and as soon as that is realized we can start to move to a healthier society as a whole. 15181694

  8. A very insightful argument. Do you believe that school lunches should include a vegetable and fruit option or that instead to get more productive results there not be an option for nutritious foods but that it would be compulsory in every meal?

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