SANTA MONICA, CALIF. — In her explanation of the premise behind a movie highly critical of the food industry, television personality Katie Couric is forthright in her sentiments about sugar’s role in the incidence of obesity in the United States.
“We do target sugar specifically because, with the low-fat food craze, we have really doubled our intake of sugar — Americans have — since 1977,” she said.
A recent review of “Fed Up,” the documentary Ms. Couric co-produced, finds a problem with her premise that Americans have been gorging on sugar as they flee foods laden with fat.
“Not only do the data not support that statement, but the assertion is wildly outside the factual realm,” said two representatives of the International Food Information Council and IFIC Foundation. The two, Matt Raymond, senior director of communications, and Marianne Smith-Edge, senior vice-president, nutrition and food safety, reviewed the film, which had its debut Jan. 19 at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
Citing data from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the IFIC reviewers noted per capita consumption of caloric sweeteners has crept up by 6.5% since 1977, a far cry from “really doubled our intake.”
In a similar timeframe, overall caloric intake per capita rose 21.5% to 2,538 calories per day between 1977 and 2010.
“In other words, Americans are eating more calories, but they are not eating significantly more calories from sugars than they did in 1977,” IFIC said. “Regardless of source, the overconsumption of calories has contributed to rising obesity rates, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”
According to Santa Monica-based Atlas Films, which released “Fed Up,” the documentary “unearths the dirty little secret” of the food industry — the products it markets are contributing to widespread health problems.
“Following a group of children for more than two years, director Stephanie Soechtig achieves a profound intimacy with them as they document their uphill battles to follow the conventional wisdom, ‘diet and exercise,’ in order to live healthier, fuller lives,” Atlas said. “They are undertaking a mission impossible. In riveting interviews with the country’s leading experts, ‘Fed Up’ lays bare a decades-long misinformation campaign orchestrated by Big Food and aided and abetted by the U.S. government.”
According to the IFIC review of the film, the documentary’s basic approach is anything but new.
“While ‘Fed Up’ is only the latest documentary to excoriate the modern food system, it joins many that have gone before in perpetuating misperceptions and scientifically unsupported assertions,” the reviewers said. “In particular, its excesses include the fallacies of confusing anecdote with scientific data, and conflating correlation with causation. Alarmism and emotion might further the filmmakers’ goal of getting national distribution or awards, but they also sweep important facts and context under the red carpet.”
The problems with the film do not mean IFIC is dismissing the seriousness of health issues associated with diet in the United States.
“Chronic disease prevalence is of great concern to us, and many health professionals and organizations have focused their full attention on obesity,” they said. “Although a definitive cause has yet to be determined, the film would have you believe that a single dietary villain (sugar) is uniquely responsible for obesity in America. Interestingly, we’re not so far removed from fat’s supposed role as bogeyman. Just as decades of research has revealed beneficial and complex roles of dietary fats in healthful diets, the science on sugars is evolving, and answers for many important questions about the role of sugars in health continue to be investigated.”
Scientific researchers over time have hardly ignored the potential connection between sugar intake and obesity, IFIC said.
“While scientific evidence to date doesn’t support a causal link between sugar intake and obesity, the root cause of obesity is an extremely complicated question that remains unanswered,” the reviewers said. “It involves many social, genetic, and environmental factors that are likely very different for each individual. Researchers and nutrition professionals agree that no single food, nutrient, or ingredient causes obesity.”
Ultimately, keeping track of calorie intake, from sugar and other nutrients, is critical to good health, IFIC said. The reviewers criticized the movie for downplaying the importance of physical activity. The film points out gym memberships have increased side-by-side with obesity rates.
“This example of putting forth correlation as causation is a textbook case of junk science,” IFIC said. “As an example of this fallacy, one researcher stated that a correlation can be made between increased bottled water consumption and obesity.
“Comparisons in the film of food to tobacco are especially specious and irresponsible. Whereas every major medical and scientific organization has determined that there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke, food consumption is the very basis of life.”
Also in contrast with tobacco, processed foods vary widely in their healthfulness, and many may contribute to a healthy diet.
Other recent developments undercut the film’s contention that obesity rates are surging, and the food industry is fueling the trend.
“Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention point to a historic plateau in overall obesity rates, including among children, and even suggest recent declines among low-income children,” the reviewers said. “Perhaps most ironic was the time on-screen spent pooh-poohing the food and beverage industry’s commitment to calorie reduction. Just days before the film’s premiere, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation and First Lady Michelle Obama announced that a pledged 1.5 trillion calorie reduction among major food and beverage makers was far exceeded by about 400%, or 6.4 trillion calories reduced.
“The 6.4 trillion-calorie achievement represents a reduction of 78 calories per person per day, which includes both adults and children.”
The IFIC review cited a May 2012 study suggesting rising obesity levels among children would be halted if energy intake were reduced by 41 calories per day.The reviewers concluded, “While none of us should by satisfied with current rates of overweight and obesity, the film’s simplistic and misguided diagnosis of the problem doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.”