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.
Cover image: www.pixgood.com