May 09, 2014

Today, a U.S. documentary, "Fed Up", was released in theatres in the U.S. and Canada. The film focuses on the U.S. food industry and Americans' consumption of sugar and processed foods in relation to concerns about the country's rising obesity rates. 

Unfortunately, the film suggests that sugar is the culprit in the American obesity problem and utilizes incorrect sugar consumption statistics, a limited number of anecdotal stories, and alarmist statements such as "sugar is toxic" and "sugar is poison". These claims are not based on scientific facts and perpetuate common misperceptions about sugar consumption and health (1). 

In critiques of the documentary, the International Food Information Council Federation (IFIC) addresses many of the inaccuracies in the film and quotes publicly available U.S. government statistics on added sugars consumption (2,3). For example, the documentary states that "we do target sugar specifically because, with the low-fat food craze, we have really doubled our intake of sugar - Americans have - since 1977." However, according to U.S. government data, caloric availability from added sugars increased about 6.3% since 1977, whereas total calories increased by 21.5% (4). 

As summarized by IFIC, "In other words, Americans are eating more calories, but they are not eating significantly more calories from sugars than they did in 1977. Regardless of the source, the overconsumption of calories has contributed to rising obesity rates, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. … Researchers and nutrition professionals agree that no single food, nutrient, or ingredient causes obesity.” …“The important issue when it comes to sugar, as with any other nutrient, is calories. It’s important that we be aware of how many calories we consume from different sources of nutrients within a balanced diet” (2).

The film focuses on the U.S. food supply and U.S. sugar consumption statistics, and is not reflective of Canadian consumption patterns or trends; Canadian consumption of added sugars is about 1/3 less than US levels (See Comparison of Canadian and U.S. added sugars consumption patterns). Consumption of added sugars in Canada has been declining over the past 15 years while obesity rates have continued to rise (5,6). Current average consumption of added sugars in Canada is estimated to be 11% of total caloric intake (7). 

CSI agrees that appropriate levels of sugar as part of one's overall diet is desirable for a balanced, healthy lifestyle. Sugars, like other carbohydrates, contribute calories, but do not uniquely contribute to excess calories or weight gain. As no single food or nutrient is responsible for weight gain, it is not appropriate to target one specific nutrient or foods containing that nutrient. CSI recommends that a healthy lifestyle for any given person is one that includes a balanced diet, which follows Canada's Food Guide, as well as appropriate levels of physical activity for one's age and fitness level. 

References:

1. Sievenpiper JL. The not so toxic truth about sugar. Carbohydrate News, Canadian Sugar Institute. 2013.

2. http://www.foodinsight.org/blogs/fed-reviewed

3. http://www.foodinsight.org/Press-Release/Detail.aspx?topic=Correcting_the_Fed_Up_Record

4. http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-availability-(per-capita)-data-system.aspx

5. http://www5.statcan.gc.ca/cansim/pick-choisir?lang=eng&p2=33&id=0020011

6. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-625-x/2011001/article/11411-eng.htm

7. Brisbois TD, Marsden SL, Anderson GH, Sievenpiper JL. Estimated intakes and sources of total and added sugars in the Canadian Diet. Nutrients. 2014, 6:1899-1912.