The new documentary Fed Up begins its indictment of the food industry with Brady Kluge, an articulate 15-year-old who weighs 215 pounds. Forty-seven percent of his body is fat. Another teenager featured in the film is so obese that his doctor suggests bariatric surgery. One boy worries about having a stroke before he’s 20. They’re all trying—and failing—to lose weight. Kluge says it’s because he’s addicted to sugar, and sugar is in so much of our food. The scientists interviewed agree. Sugar is making us fat and sick, and the food industry doesn’t care. Gary Taubes, a science journalist, says: “If we want to cure obesity, we have to demonize the food industry.”
The film is narrated by Katie Couric. The news anchor also served as an executive producer alongside Laurie David, who brought us An Inconvenient Truth. They haven’t made a great movie by cinematic standards. And the warnings about the addictive nature of processed food, and sugar in particular, might be familiar. Even so, these kids’ stories are unsettling, and the accumulated evidence against Big Food is compelling. (If you’re skeptical, check out the website created by the Grocery Manufacturers Association to debunk the movie’s claims.)
Not one food company or trade group would defend itself on film, however, so the industry perspective is absent. The scientists and journalists interviewed betray no doubt about who’s to blame. Nor is there any mention of the recent study showing an impressive decline in obesity among preschoolers. Maybe their future isn’t as grim as it is for today’s overweight teens and their parents—or maybe it’s because the kids aren’t in middle school yet.
School cafeterias are scary places in Fed Up. The documentary cites the statistic that more than half of all public high schools serve fast food for lunch. We can’t blame just the fast-food companies for that. President Bill Clinton—still trim—suggests that 80 percent of the obesity problem would be solved if schools prepared fresh food instead. Meanwhile, the federal government counts the tomato paste found on cafeteria pizza as a vegetable.
Plenty other examples show the influence of the food industry on government policy. One of the most striking is the fact that nutrition labels include the amount of sugar but not what percentage of the daily allowance that portion accounts for. Food companies have to provide both for fat and for salt.
One other particularly compelling observation came as a surprise: The phenomenon of people who are thin on the outside and fat on the inside—TOFI, for short. This internal body fat can be just as dangerous and lead to the same sorts of diseases that obese people face, say the scientists. By that measure, 51 percent of Americans are already sick from the food we eat.