The amount of hidden sugar in processed food is slowly killing us.This is according to Fed Up, an American documentary film that will premier in South Africa next Friday.
Narrated by award-winning journalist Katie Couric and produced by Stephanie Soechtig, it compares the US food industry to the tobacco industry and suggests that it preys on consumers.
Academics and health experts argue that it is not only consumers’ fault that they are overweight and apportion some blame to food producers and easy access to addictive foods that are available 24/7.
Robert Lustig, a professor of paediatrics in endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, proposes that sugar is addictive – and processed food is full of it. Americans can’t help but eat more, he says in the film.
One grossly obese child in the documentary explains: “If I see food I get hungry.”
Americans’ actual sugar intake of 41 teaspoons a day far exceeds the recommended five teaspoons, with consumers not always realising that corn syrup, maltrose or dextrose are also names for sugar.
Lustig blames refined and processed foods for “a tsunami of metabolic diseases”, referring to heart attacks, obesity, strokes, cancers and, of course, diabetes.
“If you eat a bowl of cornflakes without sugar, or a bowl of sugar without cornflakes, the effect on your body is the same,” he says.
The film works to discredit the idea that one can just outrun a bad diet. Food with sugar is still bad for you, no matter how much you exercise, it argues.
The food industry has hit back, explaining that it has removed 1.5billion calories from processed food in the US.
“Junk is still junk, even if it is less junky,” responds US journalist and healthy eating activist Michael Pollen.
South Africans are also deluged by processed foods with hidden sugars, but people here are more likely than Americans to prepare food at home, said dietician Tabitha Hume. She said she did not believe food was addictive “but producers know exactly how to create high-flavour food that affects the brain, making people feel awesome”.
At the Discovery Vitality screening of the film, bariatric specialist Tess van der Merwe complained about the ubiquity of junk food.
“There are even vending machines in hospitals, places that are supposed to be havens of safety.”
Hume advised: “We don’t know what is in our packaged food. People need to visit a dietician to be taught to read labels if they are going to eat prepared meals.”