Today, a new documentary entitled Fed Up premieres in 19 cities. Different from other films that detail the problems that plague our food system, Fed Up focuses on a single entity that is responsible for widespread health impacts in the United States: sugar.
The film makes the case that the prevalence of sugar in our diets—whether we know it or not—is having detrimental impacts to Americans’ health. Obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension have all been linked to the consumption of sugar, no matter whether it comes from cane, beets, or corn. As the film details through captivating but heart-wrenching stories of teens struggling to maintain a healthy weight, many Americans are unknowingly or unavoidably consuming far more sugar than health experts recommend. But this sugar overconsumption is no accident.
Indeed, a Union of Concerned Scientists report released this week, Sugar-Coating Science, details how food and beverage producers have used advertising, marketing, and public relations strategies to deceive the public from understanding the harms of their sugary products. My colleague Deborah outlined the report’s main findings in a previous post. Companies are investing millions of dollars to promote their sugary products (even while they donate small fractions to good causes). Their marketing dollars go towards distracting citizens from the added sugar in their products through promotion of other healthy claims, such as protein, whole grains, or fiber content.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association and Facts Up Front
It should be no surprise that the food industry is using these same tactics to push back against this film. Today the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) issued a public statement on the film that emphasized the importance of consumer choice. One line of the statement read (underline is my emphasis):
“Whether it is new packaging or new ways to prepare our products, or introducing low sodium, low fat and organic foods, we are constantly working to provide the products that empower all consumers to make the choices that are right for them and their families”
But this is precisely the problem. Misleading and inaccurate advertising means that citizens are often deceived about the healthfulness of the products they purchase and this impairs their ability to make an informed choice.
On the latter point, the GMA statement and other industry messaging has stressed the Facts Up Front labels, an initiative of GMA by which companies voluntarily disclose nutrition information on the front and top of food packaging. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but the challenge with such voluntary moves is that it allows companies—whose interest is selling more product—to choose what information is on the label and how it is displayed. Thus, companies can feature positive nutritional facts and downplay foods’ negative attributes, misleading citizens. Research has shown that companies can also mislead by how the information is displayed, with green labels suggesting products are healthier.
Such voluntary moves by industry are often intended to evade the need for stronger labeling recommendations from the FDA. Currently, the FDA is considering nutrition label changes. One proposed change is adding a line on the label for added sugars. Such a label would enable citizens to distinguish between naturally present sugars (such as those in fruit) to those that have been added to food by the producer. Yogurt, salad dressing, and barbeque sauce for example, often have added sugars. Despite some opposition, an added sugar label would empower citizens with more information about the nutritional value of their foods and is a good step toward a healthier food system.
Science, Democracy, and Healthy Food Policy
Many of the points discussed in the film were reinforced this week at a forum organized by UCS’ Center for Science and Democracy and its Food and Environment program and held at the University of Minnesota. The forum, Science, Democracy, and a Healthy Food Policy, brought together diverse voices in the food and public health arenas—from local food community organizers and food justice advocates to clinical physicians and government officials.
Over two days, the forum participants and the public had wide ranging discussions. They identified the main barriers to a healthy food system and focused on solutions: What can be done—on the ground in communities, at the federal policy level, and everywhere in between—to overcome those barriers and move us towards a healthier food system? How can we ensure that scientific evidence about health, economics, and environmental impacts informs our policies around food? And how can we ensure that all affected communities, groups, and individuals have a seat at the table and are involved in the decision-making processes around food?
The answers to these questions were discussed and debated. Opinions were voiced, connections were made, and ideas were spread. In the end, there was no consensus on the solutions to these big challenges, and it is likely that there shouldn’t be. These big challenges will require varied solutions that address the problems from different angles and with different interests in mind. In the absence of federal initiative on food issues, many communities have taken matters in their own hands to strengthen their ability to access healthy and affordable food options. The Minnesota Food Charter and the Los Angeles Food Policy Council are just two examples of initiatives that promote democratic and evidence-based policy making to bring fresh and affordable food to communities.
Many levers will need to be pulled to bring us towards a healthier food system. But as one UCS Science and Democracy Forum participant noted, our hope is that this event has brought us one step closer.