“Soda is the cigarettes of the 21st century,” according to the documentary film, "Fed Up," and “big sugar” and the soft drink companies are presented as the cause of the “obesity epidemic” that plagues the U.S. and many other parts of the world. I saw this film in its debut weekend and found it a compelling, if one-sided, discussion of the role that the film’s creators believe that added sugar in processed foods is playing in the fattening of America, particularly among children.

Why sugar?

According to the film, food processors in the U.S. responded to consumers' desire to win the “battle of the bulge” by providing low-fat alternatives to traditional food items in the 1970s. These no-fat and low-fat food items didn’t taste as good, so more sugar started making its way into product formulations to improve taste and consumer acceptance. The film’s makers say that adding the sugar wound up making it harder for people to lose or maintain their weight, and obesity became an even bigger problem.

Metabolic impact of sugar

The film attacks the notion that a calorie is a calorie, whether it is from fat, protein or carbohydrates and that sugar is just a carbohydrate. Sugar is rapidly absorbed in the digestive tract and it raises the glucose level in the bloodstream quickly, which causes the body to produce insulin. The impact of a meal with a lot of sugar, according to the film, is a rapid rise in blood glucose followed by a crash. The production of insulin has the effect of making you feel hungry and also can make you feel lethargic. The film also says sugar is addictive, more so even than cocaine, according to a rat study that was cited.

Americans are eating more sugar: Per capita consumption doubled from 1977, when the film says that low-fat became part of U.S. nutrition recommendations, and the year 2000. Also, since low-fat became the mantra for losing weight, the film says that obesity has become an epidemic in the U.S. and in many other countries that have adopted a “Western lifestyle.” A report published in The Lancet, a British medical journal, says that a review of comparative health data from 1990 and 2010 from over 50 countries and involving over 500 researchers shows that, for the first time, obesity is a bigger health problem in the world today than is hunger.

Eighty percent of processed food items have added sugar, according to the film, which touts the glycemic index for evaluating high-carbohydrate foods. They also say that readily digestible starches are just as bad as sugar. For instance, at one point it was said that “no-sugar-added corn flakes are no better from a nutritional standpoint than is corn flake-free sugar.” The movie also said that non-calorie sweeteners tell the brain that sugar is coming and that you are hungry because of this when the body didn’t get what it expected.

Who is to blame?

Every good story has good guys and bad guys, wearing white hats and black hats, respectively. "Fed Up" doesn’t disappoint; “Big Sugar” and soft drink makers are served up as the villains in this film. The USDA’s current nutrition labels on products lists the number of grams of sugar in food items, but unlike the other nutrients like protein, fat, and vitamins, there is no recommended daily amount of sugar listed. Lobbying by “Big Sugar” is blamed for the lack of recommendations and government action to reduce sugar consumption.

I don’t remember who made this statement, but at one point one of the “experts” interviewed in the film said, “You have to demonize some food industries.” Now, I’m not sure if they were making a comment about good storytelling and technique or the proper method for rabble rousing, but I think it works both ways.

The film makers had some facts to drive home their assessment of who was at fault that I was previously unaware of. According to the film, half of U.S. schools in the federal school lunch program serve branded fast-food products. Eighty percent of schools have exclusive soda contracts. Many schools serve prepared processed foods because it is cheaper than preparing the meals themselves, and this means more processed foods eaten by children, but it also means more food branding on display in the schools.

Call for action

The makers of the film would like food ads targeted at children, and I think this would include fast food restaurant, soft drink, and so-called junk food ads, banned. At one point, the film may have called for the banning of all “junk food” ads. They envision an approach like the one that was taken with cigarettes: eliminate the ads, raise taxes and make it “un-cool.”

To eat healthy, the film said consumers “need to cook real food.” They asked the audience to take the “ Fed Up challenge,” by giving up sugar in your diet for 10 days.

My take

I found the film to be a lot more interesting than I expected. I went into the theater expecting to find lots of things to question, but I know more about poultry nutrition than I do human nutrition, so I didn’t have the knowledge base to challenge some of the assertions. Let’s face it; a high rate of weight gain is a good thing in poultry production -- except, I guess, for breeder birds. I will admit that after watching the film, I checked some food labels in my home and was surprised at the sugar content of some of the foods in my pantry. However, I’m not sure if this will change the way I eat.

If the makers of “Fed Up” are successful in changing some eating habits and government nutritional guidelines, it may actually help the poultry industry. Poultry meat and eggs both make the cut in the type of diet the film is calling for, but it could really be a bonanza for fruit and vegetable producers.