I’m a little sorry to keep harping on the Fed Up “documentary” but it encapsulates so much of what is wrong with food politics in this country that it’s the gift that keeps on giving. The fun today is its obsession with added sugars.
One of the images from the movie that keeps popping up over and over in the various reviews of it is the one of the shopping cart at low level and the text “There are 600,000 food items in America. 80% have added sugar.” This gives us the amount of 480,000 food items with added sugar! Will nobody think of the children!?! I guess we’re supposed to be shocked, shocked that so much food has added sugar and answer the clarion call to rid our fair land of this evil in the food chain. Let’s take a big step back and ask a few questions of this scary “fact” and see if the alarm is warranted.
First of all, let’s just look at the claim of 600,000 items. Raw numbers are usually eye-popping, but what does the actual list of items look like? For example, are they counting types of food, brands of food, particular product lines of food, or different variations of the same kind of food? The reason this is important is because identical foods may be counted multiple times simply because there is a different flavor, even if the recipe is the same. Given the tendency of brands to come out with a flavor of the month for the same basic food item (think the different colors of M&Ms, themed to holidays and seasons), the 600K may be substantially shorter if they are counting variations of the same kind of food.
If they are counting brands, are different brands of meat, dairy and produce (i.e., “natural” foods) being counted as distinct from each other, or does the kale from Happy View Farms simply get called “kale” and not given an independent status vis-a-vis the kale from Happy Days Farms? Not doing so will suppress the number of items on the list that do not have added sugars and so make the percentage with added sugars seem larger. If one farm’s kale is exchangeable with another farm’s kale, then one company’s peanut butter is likewise exchangeable (for the purposes of a volume count) for another’s. At best, you can say there is peanut butter with added sugar and peanut butter without. Given the abundance of said peanut butters on the shelf of my local Ralphs, I suspect that reorganizing and paring down the list would remove about 1,000 items right there. My entirely cynical guess is that they lump non-sugar added items as one, and then enumerate the individual brands that have added sugars to make the numbers more shocking. Since we don’t have the list, we don’t know.
Next, let’s talk about the weasel words “added sugar.” What they want to imply is that there is no reason, role or need for sugar to be present in any of these food items whatsoever. There is no discussion of what the sugar is doing in that item, why is was added, and what else would, should or could be there in its place.
When is “added sugar” actually a standard, normal ingredient of the food item in question? Yeah, that word that keeps getting air brushed out of the debate – ingredient. Sugar is presented always already as an “additive,” which is a crucial rhetorical move. An additive is something that shouldn’t be there. There’s the overtone of adulteration and being an illicit substance, like sawdust in sausage. There’s also the enforcement of a mode of discussion that purposefully alienates the viewer from relating to the food as an ordinary part of their life, by refusing to treat sugar as something in food that they enjoy eating or that has emotional meaning for them. It is part of the medicalization of food, reducing the thing on our plate to an abstract pile of chemicals and “toxins” that are something less than what most of us consider to be food. Food as such is divided into categories of “clean” and “natural” versus “processed” and “unnatural,” and eating becomes a form of virtuous or pathological consumption, depending on what category your favored meal falls into. (If you are faaattt, then your eating categorically is pathological, no matter what you actually consume, of course.)
So, unless you have a product that is in its basic form a sugar, such as granulated sugar, maple syrup, corn syrup, honey, molasses, etc., the presence of sugar can be nothing but “added sugar,” which they’ve already rhetorically constructed as wrong and bad. What about food products that are meant to be sweet? The implication of the image is that sugar is illegitimately present in these 80% of food items, but can you really yammer on about “added sugars” when the item in question is a cake or a jar of jam or a bar of chocolate or any other food item that normally and traditionally is made with sugar?
Here’s a thought exercise that the food puritans really don’t want you to do. Think of a food item that can be made at home, even if you yourself wouldn’t do it, that is also available as a commercial product in a reasonably well-stocked suburban grocery store. Try to pick out things from different parts of the store – deli, bakery, cold case, freezers, center aisles, etc. Here’s a few examples to get your creative juices flowing: Cookies, jello, potato salad, pickles, soup, spaghetti sauce, frosting, pasta noodles, caramel sauce, pepperoni pizza, tamales, ketchup, crackers, bread, yogurt, ice cream, pie crust, chicken stock, beef stew, cinnamon rolls, steak rub, enchilada sauce, pork & beans, sheet cake, lemon pie, teriyaki marinade. Feel free to add more, especially if it’s a favorite food that you do cook at home.
Now that you’ve thought of the food, ask yourself, if I (or a suitably ambitious cook) was to make this at home, would sugar be a usual ingredient? If I looked up a recipe for this dish or condiment, would I likely find sugar in the ingredient list? If sugar is a usual part of that food, is it really an additive, or just an ingredient? This is no judgment on the food itself (good for you, bad for you, etc.), it’s just trying to re-nature the food that we eat in the face of relentless pathologizing of everything we consume.
My guess is that big 480,000 food item list would swiftly be whittled down to far fewer than 100,000, especially if you just said “cookies” instead of listing every single possible permutation of the types of cookies you would find on a grocery store shelf and which you would expect to contain sugar. In short, it would restore sugars of various kinds to their legitimate role as traditional and expected ingredients in certain kinds of food.
Then there are foods on the list that we probably wouldn’t cook at home, but we very much would use it as a cooking ingredient. These are usually condiments, and they very often have a variety of sweeteners in them. Like food items we cook at home “from scratch,” these condiments very often traditionally have some bit of sweetener in them, and have not had them added in recent times, such as Worcestershire sauce. Condiments also tend to be used in very small amounts – a teaspoon here, a tablespoon there – that don’t contribute much to the overall sugar content of the dish. So, the alarm over “added sugars” begins to look more like a general concern than a menace to civilization as we know it.
So, now that the list is a whole lot more manageable because reduced in size and categorized according to sugar as a necessary or traditional ingredient and sugar as something relatively new, then we can start to have an intelligent and meaningful discussion of levels of sugar in our food. We can start asking things like:
- Why are there 50 bazillion flavors of soda pop on the shelf? Is the rapid rise in consumption of full-calorie beverages where the calories are mostly or significantly derived from sweeteners implicated in the rapid rise of diabetes?
- What food products in the stores today when prepared at home normally do not include sweeteners as an ingredient and why have they been added to this or that food product?
- Where sweeteners are present in foods, whether traditionally present or recently introduced, are they a significant source of calories and sugar, or do they provide just some flavor and little caloric impact?
- Why is there organic sugar in my organic marinara sauce? Is it used as a flavor enhancer, a preservative, a conditioner/texturizer? Would reduction and/or removal of this organic sugar materially damage the product such that people would find it unpalatable? Would its removal harm the product such that it would no longer be shelf-stable?
- Are foods that used to be a once-in-a-while treat made at home or obtained at a fairly high price from a specialty shop (I’m thinking mostly pastries and baked goods here) now more ubiquitous and lower cost than they were 30 years ago? How has this changed our consumption habits?
- How much is packaging encouraging consumption of larger amounts of food, regardless of sugar content?
- How have serving sizes at eateries increased, regardless of sugar content?
Let me be clear – I’m not trying to defend the food industry. My questions above are aimed at changes in food development, packaging and serving over the last 30 years that have been good for profits, but have not had consumers’ long term welfare in mind. Why the fuck is there sugar in my marinara sauce? And, no, making it “organic” sugar does not make it any more appealing. On the other hand, I know people who put sugar into their home made tomato sauces to counteract acidity in tomatoes. I personally prefer my tomato sauces to be acidic rather than sweet, but I understand the culinary reason to do it.
The food puritans would remove sugar as such from your diet. Nothing sweetened should pass your lips. I personally wouldn’t want to live in a world where I didn’t use sugar (or molasses or honey or even, yes, corn syrup) as a regular ingredient in my cooking and where I could not freely choose to purchase a package of cookies or a jar of jam or my favorite little green tea mints if I fancied something sweet.
I remember going to school in first grade and having been given a small “Look” candy bar in my lunch, one of the few days when my mother packed something for me. It was such a treat, and I was hungry because the milk had gone bad and I couldn’t eat my cereal, so I wolfed it down at the bus stop in the morning and left the rest of my lunch for lunch. Because I was raised by good leftists and knew not to litter, I kept the candy bar wrapper in the lunch pail to throw away at school. The school nurse was doing some nutrition thing that day and asked everyone to show the content of their lunch boxes. She saw that my box had an empty candy wrapper in it, grabbed it, and stated to scold me in front of the rest of the class for having “spoiled my lunch” by eating the candy bar first. I was in tears. My teacher, Mrs. Armstrong, stepped forward, took the wrapper away from the nurse, and, talking over the top of the scold, said to me “What does this say? What is this word?” I knew how to read and said “Look.” “How do you spell it?” “L-O-O-K, look.” “That’s right! You know how to spell it!”
I worshipped Mrs. Armstrong after that. She turned my first public shaming over food into how well I could read and spell. But I also learned that eating sweet things was dangerous and left me open to being shamed and humiliated just because I was hungry. I learned to hide what I ate and destroy the evidence. I also learned that school nurses don’t care if the sandwich in your lunch box is just margarine on old, stale bread. That fact, not the candy bar, was the health problem.
Pathologizing food, particularly food that is highly appealing to children, is not the way to address the changes in food manufacturing and distribution that have played a role in the rapid increase in various health issues in recent decades. The bullying, the shaming, the punitive measures do not add up to sustainable public policy or healthy consumption habits. It leaves the food industry free to peddle their highly profitable wares while leaving the rest of us struggling in a physical environment that actively interferes with our well-being.