Food Policy

What Fed Up Gets Wrong About the Food Industry

The new documentary Fed Up claims to shine a critical light on the food industry and the "obesity epidemic." But it ignores the real culprit.


Earlier this week I caught a matinee showing of the new documentary Fed Up, at Washington, D.C.'s E Street Cinema. The film mostly rails against foods and drinks sweetened with added sugar. The movie's producers, including veteran news personality Katie Couric—who also narrates—bill Fed Up as "the film the food industry doesn't want you to see."

There's enough to dislike about Fed Up—a New York Daily News critic gives the film two stars—that I suspect viewers like you will find it is the film you don't want you to see.

Fed Up features a who's who of well-known supporters of increased food regulations, including Marion Nestle, Kelly Brownell, and Michael Pollan. That's to be expected. But it gives little screen time to opponents of increased regulation. And when it does, the treatment they receive is unfair by any objective measure.

The film's brief gotcha moment, for example, centers on Professor David Allison of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, whose public-health research the filmmakers targeted because, the filmmakers say, it's been funded by food companies.

"Unfortunately, despite my repeated requests, the producers have not provided me an opportunity to view the film yet and therefore I cannot comment in detail," Allison told me by email this week.

"I am told from others who have seen the film that a clip is shown in which I am asked a question about how one would ideally test whether sugar sweetened beverages contribute to obesity, and that I ask for a few moments to collect my thoughts; after showing me think for about 10 seconds, the camera cuts away before I give my answer," says Allison, who hasn't seen the film. "If this is the case, the film-makers' behavior seems counter to thoughtful dialogue. To ask me a question and edit out the answer, and I did answer every question, shows a lack of interest in a discussion of the evidence."

That is indeed the case. And it's shameful behavior on the part of Couric, who Allison tells he me he recalls speaking with on camera for the film for at least an hour.

By my count, the first mention of federal farm subsidies or sugar protectionism doesn't occur until nearly an hour into the 90-minute film. And it's around this issue that I think Fed Up's filmmakers commit their most grievous error—the misguided portrayal of former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-HFCS), and USDA secretary Tom Vilsack as some sort of champions of healthy food.

A fed up reviewer at, who gives the documentary just two stars, takes issue with Clinton's appearance in the film.

"'I don't think high-fructose corn syrup is a good use of corn,' former President Bill Clinton muses at one point in the film, going on to admit that his administration could have done more about this issue," he writes. "(Is it just me or has Clinton said that about a LOT of things his administration ended up not doing much about? Hell, and I like the guy.)"

Toward the end of Fed Up, viewers see Sen. Harkin wondering how food-industry executives sleep at night. Don't they have any shame at all?, he wonders. Moments later, he answers the question: "I don't know how they live with themselves."

Harkin then talks of his nearly 30 years campaigning against obesity.


Outside of the film, the same Harkin proudly notes he's now helped pass a Farm Bill eight different times. The same Harkin who reports he supported the most recent Farm Bill thanks in part to its "beneficial… investments for Iowa farmers," who receive the second-most farm subsidies in the nation, according to the Environmental Working Group.

That same recent Farm Bill also includes "[c]ontinuation of a depression-era sugar program that supports prices and protects growers from foreign competition."

It gets uglier. More than 80 percent of Iowa farmers are dependent on some type of taxpayer subsidy. More than 175,000 of the state's corn farmers received more than $15 billion in subsidies from 1995-2012. Those figures also come from EWG.

In 2006, Harkin bragged that "Iowa lead[s] the nation in corn and high fructose corn syrup production."

So Tom Harkin is a hypocrite. Though that's hardly unique here in Washington. Secretary Vilsack is equally ghastly when he talks about how he's tried to rein in the food industry.

In 2011, for example, Matt Yglesias, then at ThinkProgress, wrote of Vilsack's "unconvincing case for farm subsidies."

Like I said, there's lots to dislike here. Food industry representatives don't love the movie, either.

"Rather than identifying successful policies or ongoing efforts to find real and practical solutions to obesity, it adopts a short-sighted, confrontational and misleading approach by cherry-picking facts to fit a narrative, getting the facts wrong, and simply ignoring the progress that has been made over the last decade in providing families with healthier options at home and at school," said Pamela Bailey of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, in remarks reported by The Wrap.

The film does have its supporters. USA Today critic Scott Bowles claims Fed Up "tackles American diets with a ferocity that would make Michael Moore proud," whatever that means.

I found the parts of the movie that make the most sense and are most grounded in fact are those that lay blame at the hands of government policies and programs.

"The government is subsidizing the obesity epidemic," says Michael Pollan partway into the movie.

But for every smart Pollan quote, there are at least a dozen absurd policy prescriptions.

Anti-sugar activist Dr. David Ludgwig (or is it anti-sugar activist Dr. Robert Lustig, who's also featured in the film), for example, claims at one point that the only choices available for stemming the rise of childhood obesity is either expanding gastric bypass surgery or restricting food marketing to kids.

Others who appear in the film offer similar policy prescriptions. New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, for example, calls for taxing food or drink that contains sugar and other caloric sweeteners. But why should government screw Americans twice? Why tax us to give a needless handout to farmers who raise crops that are turned into sweeteners and then tax us a second time as punishment for buying the products that contain those sweeteners? Where's the logic in that?

Couric herself concludes that two specific policy steps to reduce obesity are 1) warning labels on cans of soda and 2) requiring celebrities who act as pitchmen and pitchmen for so-called junk foods to also be required to pitch a vegetable.

This is the same Couric who, as recently as this past winter, was offering viewers of her doomed daytime show a chance to win a free "swag bag" that featured a large bag of upmarket crème caramel almonds, a product billed as "the ultimate salty sweet snack."

As I watched the previews before the movie, I noticed that by my count only two of the dozen or so people in the theater were eating. Notably, both snackers were men who appeared to be in their early 30s. One man, who sat a row in front of me and who was heavyset, ate a large bag of popcorn and slurped on a large drink during the movie. The other man, who sat in my row and appeared to be very fit, ate the same size popcorn and drank the same size beverage as did the overweight man.

I don't have all the answers. But unlike Fed Up's filmmakers, I don't pretend that I do.

NEXT: Tonight on The Independents: Failed Cities

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  1. at Washington, D.C.’s E Street Cinema.

    Do they play Bruce Springsteen videos too?

  2. What Fed Up Gets Wrong About the Food Industry

    Wouldn’t it have been easier to tell us what Fed Up gets right about the food industry? You could have put up a blank post and been done with it.

    1. I guess you could say they got it all F-ed up.

    2. I don’t know if restricting sugar usage is the best strategy to combat obesity, but just “knowing” about an issue is not always enough to change behavior.

      In any event, I STRONGLY recommend everyone here go take a look at this talk by Dr. Robert Lustig. He goes into more depth about the causes of obesity and the healthcare consequences and more importantly for this libertarian crowd, the costs that brings.

      Even if you don’t think government should mandate bans/taxes on sugar, it is a worthy endeavor to think about ways to curtail the usage of sugar in modern diets. It does seem to be a primary cause for many chronic diseases when too much is consumed.

      1. “it is a worthy endeavor to think about ways to curtail the usage of sugar in modern diets.”

        No it really isnt.

        1. Yes, it really is.

      2. “ways to curtail the usage of sugar in modern diets”

        Sure, quit eating garbage and don’t be a lazy asshole.

        I’d say it’s not that hard but, clearly, I am incorrect.

  3. Way to monopolize the conversation, Ted.

    1. Fisty is just jealous that I was first and second.

  4. Couric herself concludes that two specific policy steps to reduce obesity are…requiring celebrities

    Perhaps we should require celebrities with talk shows to also pitch non-government solutions to problems. You think Katie would sign up for that?

    1. I like it.

  5. USA Today critic Scott Bowles claims Fed Up “tackles American diets with a ferocity that would make Michael Moore proud,” whatever that means.

    I call that damning with fat praise. Ha! Get it?

    You know who’s a good food regulator? Me. I can adequately regulate what food goes in my goddamn cake hole.

    1. You only think you can regulate yourself adequately. It’s false consciousness.

    2. Coke and Pepsi sales have been falling at around 3% per year in North America for the last several years, and the trend is picking up speed with the percent decrease increasing each year.

      We don’t need regulations we just need the truth.

      Does the movie get into how government dietary guidelines which control food served in nearly all institutions in the USA (schools, hospital, retirement facilities…) are horribly WRONG?

      Or, how the science subsidized by the US tax payer has been politicized since the initially shit work of Ancel Keys?

      Lefties cannot acknowledge these questions or begin to address them because then they’d need to acknowledge the damaging role government and government funded universities and scientists play in creating this debacle, thus denying any other issue like global climate change maybe just as fucked up.

      1. Are you saying sugar flavored skim milk mandated by the Feds isn’t healthier than the whole milk our thin forebears used to drink?

        That’s crazy talk.

        1. Actually, recent research indicates that drinking lower-fat milk contributes to weight gain more than full-fat milk.

      2. The program influencing food services throughout the Army today is the Soldier Fueling Initiative, announced in 2010 and tested at Fort Jackson, S.C., in facilities feeding soldiers in initial training. It now applies to facilities for all basic and advanced individual training.

        For example, sodas disappeared from the fountain dispensers and were replaced by water, sports drinks and juices.

        *face palm*

        In my day, we had soda, sport drinks, coffee, tea, milk, and juice (breakfast) in the dispensers. The only ones you could actually take were milk and juice. WTF is wrong with the Army these days? Water comes out of the faucet and the goddam 1qt canteen you had to carry everywhere.

    3. my goddamn cake hole

      Damn it, Fist. I keep telling you if you shove cake in your colostomy bag connector, it’s going to clog, AGAIN.

  6. Blaming the food industry for obesity is like blaming the projector industry for bad documentaries.

    1. This idea that it’s not the intrinsic properties of food & tobacco that make them attractive, but something sneaky its purveyors are doing in the promotion and/or formul’n, is a recent one; I don’t recall its having been around 35 yrs. ago. However, it is in the same vein as the idea that people wouldn’t want sex if it weren’t for porn, and that kids learn to curse from some ne’er-do-wells remote from the family, which have long been prevalent.

      1. and that kids learn to curse from some ne’er-do-wells remote from the family,

        I never cussed until I worked for a guy who was an elder in his church. He left his moral code at the door, but tried to make arguments for why the rest of us should work Sundays by talking about biblical references like “his ox was in a ditch.”
        If he hadn’t held onto all his job orders until Thursday afternoon and made everything due Monday, he wouldn’t have kept putting his ox in the ditch. I took to calling clients and asking when they really needed things. The answers were often weeks away, and almost always well after “Monday.”

  7. Bill Clinton and Michael Moore are opponents of Big Food?

    1. Well, not for themselves.

      1. “Look what Big Food did to us! If you’re not careful, they’ll do it to you, too!”

    2. “Peter, you see that pig over there? We could totally eat that pig.”

    3. Yeah they like their food small. They want lots of small servings.

  8. From the reviewer: More irksome is the fact that Katie Couric and Laurie David, both of whose personal fortunes were achieved with no small participation from the Coca Cola Company

    As if if pointing out to people like Couric that they’re hypocrites would even make them blink. Hell, hypocrisy is like a badge of honor to people like that. That fact that they gained their wealth through the system they rail against empowers them. They can say, “Oh, yes, the system that enriched me is very evil, I recognize that myself, now. I’m evidence of it, I personally can attest to the fact that it’s wrong. I’m repenting for the sins of my life by showing everyone else the path to goodness. I’m publicly guilty of the sin of wealth, and now I can take that money and spend it on projects that show the unenlightened poor the errors of their ways.

    1. now I can take that money and spend it on projects that show the unenlightened poor the errors of their ways

      But not too much of that money. After all, they’re accustomed to a certain lifestyle.

      1. But not too much of that money. After all, they’re accustomed to a certain lifestyle.

        They aren’t spending any money. They are getting paid to enlighten us all.


    2. This hypocrisy is similar to the National Broadcasting Company, which runs multiple 24/7 radio, broadcast TV and cable networks, which consume enormous amounts of electricity every day, urging us to unplug our iPhone rechargers to “save the planet.”

      1. “The less you know…”

      2. I remember a long segment on BBC a while back on the horrors of modern AV equipment that goes on standby instead of powering down just so selfish consumers wouldn’t have to wait for them to power on.

        1. I remember seeing a bunch of those segments about fifteen years ago.

    3. Isn’t the Couric the unit of measure or the weight of a turd? Yesterday I yielded a 4.5 Couric before lunch.

      1. For the weight…

    4. It’s like purchasing indulgences. George Soros does it, and it works for him.

  9. ferocity that would make Michael Moore proud,” whatever that means.

    It means disregarding the truth in service of pushing your agenda. Duh.

  10. requiring celebrities who act as pitchmen and pitchmen for so-called junk foods to also be required to pitch a vegetable

    I’d like to believe that such a move would make progressive celebrities suddenly find some love for freedom of association and freedom of speech. Unfortunately I can see many embracing this whole heartedly.

  11. On the anniversary of Brown v. Board of education, Politico celebrates some triumphs of desegregation, including –

    Reinstating “a Mexican-American studies curriculum” in the Tucson public schools

    Getting the racial attendance figures reconfigured at a charter school: “The changes were dramatic: During the school’s first year, the school was 72 percent white, 14 percent black and 5 percent Latino. This year, the enrollment is 58 percent white, 22 percent black and 9 percent Latino.”…..Page2.html

    1. During the school’s first year, the school was 72 percent white, 14 percent black and 5 percent Latino.

      So roughly the proportion of the United States? No not that!

      Years ago I spent almost an entire class trying to explain to someone that a “school that looked like America” would still be mostly white people, because America was mostly white. He seemed to be under the impression that there were equal proportions of white, yellow, black, and brown in our country.

      1. I’ve read of surveys that claim blacks think they are about 30% of the country, when they are more like 12%.

        1. Yeah I had to explain that to a white prog do gooder type once. Richmond is majority black, and she was having real trouble comprehending that Richmond was not in fact a microcosm of the United States.

          This also leads to hilarious prog racial idiocy. Like the mayoral election when the white urban progs were confused and befuddled when Dwight Jones, a reverend and Delegate won easily on the first ballot in a four way race. They were genuinely confused that their preferred candidates couldn’t get any kind of traction.

      2. More Latins/Hispanics than Blacks in the USA now days.

  12. “University weapons policy forces fencing club from [North Dakota State University] campus

    “Despite having no pointed tips or sharp blades, NDSU classifies the club’s equipment as weapons.

    “The university doesn’t permit the use of weapons on campus. As such, the club is currently practicing elsewhere.”

    1. It seems like universities are the biggest weapons of all.

    2. Fencing is racist.

    3. The university I went to did the same thing, said we had weapons (this was 18 or 19 years ago.)

      We just did it anyway. Occasionally got chased out of buildings, but usually could get a room if we didn’t make it obvious we would be fencing.

      1. Why were you running? RUN THEM THROUGH.

        1. They weren’t *actually* sharp.

          Now that I think about it, one of the best parts is that we couldn’t practice in the rec center.

          The administrators held the threat of declaring our equipment weapons and not allowed in the dorms over us.

      2. The university I went to had gun lockers in the student dorms…and my freshman year was in 2004.

        1. Twenty-something years before that, we were just supposed to “register” firearms with someone in the admin building. Fill out two copies of a little card at the beginning of the year when you brought it onto campus, then get back their copy of the card when you took it home at the end of the year. If they still had the card after the end of the year they would call you up to find out why you didn’t come pick up your card.

          1. We had to check ours in and out through an RA, who were the only ones with keys to the gun locker room. Well, if you bothered to tell them you had them, anyway; many students didn’t bother and kept them in their rooms or cars. I don’t recall anyone getting busted for it. Hell, I know one of the RA’s didn’t bother with it either, even though the policy applied to them equally.

    4. “Do you do any fencing?”

      “Just a little when I was a kid.”

  13. The appropriate title would be Fed. Up

  14. The broccoli mandate approaches.

  15. No mention of the food pyramid? Good calories, Bad Calories has a grat discussion on how all of that unscientific nonsense went down in the 1970s.

    It’s the same tires atory. Government causes problem. Those responsible for causing the problem demand more power to fix it. “We’ll get it right this time, we promise!” Bullshit, leave us alone.

  16. What I find hilarious is the idea that people don’t know sugary foods are bad for them. Who doesn’t know that regular soda causes weight gain? Or that cookies and cake are bad for you?

    This isn’t like fat, where some people (like me) believe in the Taubes/etc hypothesis, and others believe the calories in/out hypothesis. Everyone knows sugar is bad. What an incredibly brave documentary, guys. Give yourselves another pat in the back.

    1. Exactly. The anti-fat mania of the ’70s led to low-fat products, which made things taste terrible, so they added LFCS. And the obesity epidemic took off. Coincidence?

      (Although admittedly there are other factors, including an aging population, fewer people smoking, and mass immigration of Hispanics, who have a higher obesity rate.)

    2. Sugar isn’t bad, it’s essential.

      Too much sugar however…

  17. Today I am going to the Cubs/Brewers game. I am going to drink a lot of beer, eat food that is delicious but terrible for me and then drink some more. All of which is bad for me, especially since I’ve done nothing but sit at my desk at work for 15 hours a day for the last month. You know what? It’s my goddamn choice. Fuck off, anyone who would seek to stop me.

    1. You know, you could just give that $300 in concession sales to me and live healthier.

    2. Interestingly, the theory that alcohol leads to weight gain seems to be flawed. It now looks like wine and distilled liquor do not, but that beer does.

      1. Sure, because how much wurst you gonna have with your wine or whisky?

  18. “I am asked a question about how one would ideally test whether sugar sweetened beverages contribute to obesity, and that I ask for a few moments to collect my thoughts”

    I am imagining that he was puzzled, trying to figure out a way to answer without calling the interviewer a blithering idiot. It’s a sugar-sweetened beverage. If you drink too much of it, of course it contributes to obesity. That applies to every food and beverage that has actual caloric content.

    1. That is indeed the case. And it’s shameful behavior on the part of Couric, who Allison tells he me he recalls speaking with on camera for the film for at least an hour.

      This is what passes for journalistic integrity. Interview someone for an hour so that you can try and find a gotcha moment, in this case the guy pausing for ten whole seconds, oh gee, gotcha. You’d think Couric would have a little bit of integrity and not allow such cheap editing tactics, but she was never much of an actual journalist in the first place, just a teleprompt drone like Chocolate Nixon, except even more shallow and fatuous.

    2. Without any clue other than the written description above, I’ve been trying to figure out what the movie makers wanted to convey by that clip.

      My chief guess is that they wanted to make it appear that the interviewee was trying to make it appear much more difficult than reason would dictate to prove that sugared beverages contribute to obesity. 2nd guess is that they just wanted to make the interviewee appear stupid. 3rd guess is that they were trying to say that sugared beverages do not contribute to obesity, and that the interviewee was straining to come up with a way that they did.

  19. Since my daughter was born 17 years ago, at every preschool and school event, every childhood birthday party, every high school band concert, I have searched desparately for evidence — any evidence — of the Horrid National Obesity Epidemic That is Destroying Our Children. I still have not found any.

    1. Try visiting my home state of NM, you’ll see it in copious abundance.

      The obesity epidemic is not a myth, if anything it’s understated.

      1. That’s not a nationwide epidemic, now is it? And I don’t suppose that New Mexicans consume proportionately more sugary foods than, say, New Jersians.

        1. Yeah you are right, It’s just in NM. And those numbers showing a huge rise in NAFLD in children and young adults are probably all made up.

          1. Ditto with the early onset Type II DM.

      2. Isn’t NM the state with highest proportion of Hispanics? They are more likely to be obese than whites.

  20. Good news, the US is cutting tens of thousands of US military personnel who are citizens yet “Immigration reform” supporters want to replace them with illegal aliens. So even jobs that Americans do want to do are the target of the “immigration reformers”

    “””””Republican leaders to block US immigration measure (ENLIST Act)””””…..9527.html.

    The US does need to cut the military, but cut commitments to defend foreign countries first and return the military to its one legitimate job, defending the US.

    1. Ah let’s see, something about enlisting foreigners into the military in order to maintain a massive military apparatus. Something something Valens something something Adrianople.

      1. This is not the empire you’re looking for…

  21. The answer is that people who are willing to go to the expense of buying movie snack bar fare aren’t going to be dissuaded by any reasonable price increase in foods.

  22. What the Documentary Fed Up Gets Wrong About the ‘Obesity Epidemic’

    Everything? I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that’s it’s nothing but fact-free, twisted, anti-capitalist, po-mo, lefty agitprop.

    What do I win?

    1. My Scottish great-grandfather told me 30 years ago sugar in significant quantities would rot my teeth and make me fat. He was right.

      That’s the part they got right.

      1. You’re fat with rotted teeth aren’t you?

        1. You know it babe. Now come here and give me a big smooch.

  23. I found the parts of the movie that make the most sense and are most grounded in fact are those that lay blame at the hands of government policies and programs.

    I could understand using this type of argument on other sites such as The Daily Beast or Time where a significant portion of the audience subscribe to the ideology that one is merely a passive victim of the insidious or ignorant action’s of others. Attempting to turn that misguided audience back on its handlers is a laudable goal. However, this article’s primary audience is Reason consumers.

    There are billions of experiments conducted throughout each and every month concerning the impact specific foods and other lifestyle choices has on a person’s body mass. Regardless of what the government or the food industries are publicly stating, if I put on five pounds within a months time I know I either have to eat less or become more physically active if I want to return to my previous weight.

  24. If fat people want to be left alone they said stay inside so that skinny people aren’t forced to look at them /katie couric

  25. Any attempt at dirigism against obesity runs into the problem that there’s just a knife edge between positive & negative caloric balance. Even most really bad cases of obesity are just the result of a long time at a small percentage above neutral caloric balance. If you could manage to find a control knob to “pot that down” in the popul’n enough to keep those individuals from slowly gaining wt., it would be at the expense of others slowly becoming emaciated, & then we’d hear of the “famine epidemic”. It’s like trying to get just the right amount of narcotics to pain pts. w/o them getting to people who don’t need them.

  26. What if it’s an epigenetic event?

    A couple months ago I read an article about an absolutely *bizarre* phenomena related to epigenetics, specifically genetic imprinting. During certain stages of the embryos existence and I think at spermatogenesis, the genome of the relevant cells will under demethylation and remethylation-except for ‘imprinted’ genes, that remain methylated. Methylation is a modification of DNA that does not change the sequence but silences expression. A research team found that a chemical exposure could change the imprinting pattern-the genes that did not go through demethylation-in the mice and that change would be maintained for multiple generations through the germline unless they were inbred. This did have significant phenotypic consequences, such as ovarian polycystic disease and obesity. Polycystic ovarian disease is a problem in women today. The ‘obesity epidemic’ came after the widespread use of DDT, which was found to modify imprinting. I think the hysteria over endocrine disruptors is mostly BS, but it is possible that An Event-chemical or even pathogenic-altered the epigenome of Americans. This could explain obesity numbers…voting patterns?

  27. Further, the obesity epidemic is BS. Mild obesity is not bad for you. There has been no surge in mortality coincident with this ‘epidemic’. Also, the lipid hypothesis and the salt is bad for you hypothesis are both total BS.

    I’m one of those freaks who can’t gain weight or girth ever. Kind of sucks; I’m always cold and skinny.

    1. Age will take care of that.

  28. Well written post!
    Hey Baylen, I have sawn the Fed up and learned a lot. The information in the scene is incredibly important for those who don’t have knowledge about healthy food. The main issue about sugar that seem to be missed in the production stages of it, at that time some nutrients that have been removed.

  29. Fed Up is an excellent documentary that explains how the food industry closely parallels the tobacco industry, and why it’s now time for us to mobilize against Big Food in order to save our children’s lives.

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