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Filmmakers 'Fed Up' with sugar added to foods seek to raise consumer awareness

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TORONTO - Food manufacturers are responsible for fuelling a sugar dependency in America that is creating an obesity epidemic, and it's spreading around the world, the makers of the new documentary "Fed Up" charge.

Director Stephanie Soecthig ("Tapped") teamed with narrator and journalist Katie Couric to create the hard-hitting look at why millions of American children are growing up obese despite media attention and government guidelines. The principal culprit is sugar, they say, which is added to many products, including ketchup, pasta sauce, salad dressing, breakfast cereals, juice and energy drinks, baked goods, yogurt and even baby formula.

Laurie David, who won an Oscar for producing "An Inconvenient Truth," Indigo CEO Heather Reisman and Regina Scully ("Miss.Representation") are executive producers of "Fed Up," which opens in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal on Friday.

"Katie Couric has been following the issue of diet, exercise and obesity for 30 years in different ways and notwithstanding all the news of this over so many years in fact Americans were getting fatter and she thought it would be interesting to excavate this problem and really understand what is going on," said Reisman ahead of a screening at Toronto's recent Hot Docs Festival.

Soecthig followed several families for more than two years and includes some heart-wrenching footage in which obese children document their uphill battle with the bulge.

"We found them in various places, in church groups, through schools, doctor's offices," Soecthig said. "At one point we're following 10 different families. We give them video cameras and ask them to document their daily life. We got really lucky because we had some amazing children that really personified the underlying problems, the marketing and the policy issues."

Consider these facts from the film: from 1977 to 2000 it's estimated Americans have doubled their intake of sugar. Despite fitness club memberships more than doubling across the U.S. between 1980 and 2000, obesity rates doubled. Eighty per cent of the 600,000 food products sold in the U.S. contain sugar. Children have more exposure to foods containing sugar, fat and sodium through advertising, including online, and in their school cafeterias than ever before.

Sugar is addictive — a study showed that of 43 cocaine-addicted rats given the choice between cocaine and sugar water over 15 days, 40 of the creatures opted for the sweet stuff.

The most recent Canadian data, from the 2004 Canadian Consumer Health Survey, shows that on average Canadians consumed 110 grams of total sugar a day that year — the equivalent of 130 ml (26 teaspoons) — which includes sugars added to foods as well as naturally occurring sugars in fruits, vegetables and milk products. Sugar calories made up 21.4 per cent of the average Canadian's total calorie intake. Added sugar is estimated to account for about half of the total sugars intake or 51 to 53 g per day (65 ml/13 tsp), about 11 per cent of total daily calories.

"It's not like people have to go from not knowing anything to suddenly becoming these extreme food people," said Reisman. "You become aware and with that awareness you just take a couple of steps and a couple of steps. I think that's the power of Stephanie's film is that it is a story that she's telling us that makes us aware of how much we are surrounded by things that are actually not good for us."

Added sugar can have many guises, including molasses, sucrose, fructose, glucose, anhydrous dextrose, malt syrup and honey. On nutrition labels, a percentage for the daily recommendation is not given for sugar.

"That's the other thing that's not fair about this issue," David said. "You're eating a lot of ice cream or you're having doughnuts for breakfast, you know 'OK, I'm eating bad stuff.' But you don't necessarily know it when you're eating yogurt, which is marketed as a healthy breakfast. Or cereal which is marketed as healthy, fibre added. Or juice or baby formula. All these things are sugar bombs."

Families are eating largely processed food or dining on takeout which contain high levels of sugar, fat and salt. Yet cooking meals with whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean meats ensures children get the nutrients they need while eliminating unhealthy ingredients.

"We're now going on a fourth decade of marketing telling us that cooking is hard. It's a chore. It's expensive. It takes too long," said David. "And by the way, none of those things are true."

Added Reisman: "I'm a working mom. We're travelling. I certainly know what it's like to be busy. But I'm still able to cook from scratch for my family. Once you do it it becomes incredibly easy. You need to get over the mental hurdle."

In the same time it takes to put together a pasta meal from a box, you can scramble eggs with some vegetables. A trip to a drive-thru, on the other hand, can take double the time.

Executives from large food and beverage companies were approached for comment, but many declined to be interviewed.

The filmmakers challenge people to forgo sugar for 10 days. That includes foods with added sugars and liquid sugars, such as sodas, bottled teas, fruit juices and sports drinks, as well as artificial sugars and sugar substitutes. Artificial sweeteners slow metabolism and make you crave and eat more food.

"I've already done it because I wanted to see what it was going to be like," David said. "I could not believe how I felt. It curbed my appetite. I wasn't craving food all day long. And I had more energy and I felt cleaner. It was an amazing difference. And I don't eat that much sugar."

The film opens in Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa on May 16, and in Halifax, Victoria and Winnipeg on May 23.

Follow (at)lois_abraham on Twitter.

Note to readers: A previous version stated the amount of sugar consumed by Canadians in 2004 was 110 grams a day, which refers to total sugar, including naturally occurring in foods and from added sugar. The amount of added sugar is about half of that.

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