The Food Industry's Sweet Deal

A new documentary says keeping sugar cheap is a policy choice that makes America less healthy.

A spoonful of sugar.

A not-so-sweet deal for agricultural workers and consumers

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In the new documentary “Fed Up,” filmmakers hunt for the cause of escalating obesity and metabolic disease in America. Their culprit: sugar, particularly corn-based sweeteners hidden in everyday foods like bread, salad dressings and canned vegetables. And the culprit behind the culprit: the sugar and corn lobbies, backstopped by the federal government.

Cheap and addictive, added sugar is bad for public health but great for private industry. While there’s little to be done about the addictive nature of sweeteners, their cheapness is a policy choice. As the filmmakers point out, federal subsidies create incentives for companies to lard their products with cane sugar and corn syrups, while federal dietary guidelines focus far more on restricting fats than cutting back on sugars.

The consumer-based food politics at the heart of “Fed Up” are part of a decade-long trend. Starting in 2001 with Eric Schlosser’s "Fast Food Nation," muckrakers have been exposing the unsavory practices behind the production of Americans’ favorite foods. Public response has invariably focused on problems of consumption rather than production, however, demonstrating the limits to this type of advocacy. Schlosser, for instance, dedicated part of his book to the dangerous working conditions in slaughterhouses and fast-food restaurants. But the public turned out to be more concerned about their own health than that of workers.

[READ: Can 'Fed Up' Be the Next 'Inconvenient Truth'?]

This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of muckraking and the food industry. In 1906, Upton Sinclair published "The Jungle," a fictionalized exposé of the Chicago meatpacking industry. In a famous passage, he dramatized the workers’ fate: “[T]heir particular trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting. Sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out into the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard!”

And you thought added sugar was bad.

Sinclair had intended his book as a socialist manifesto, seeking to evoke sympathy on behalf of the vulnerable worker. He later lamented, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” The public’s stomach shaped the sort of policy that followed publication of "The Jungle": the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. Both were concerned with the purity of the final product rather than the safety of the workplace.

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“Fed Up” focuses on industry lobbyists and government subsidies that keep down the cost of sweeteners. But their prices are also kept low by illegal labor practices and the exploitation of agricultural workers. This, too, must be part of food policy reform. It’s not enough to make our food safe and healthy – we must ensure our food producers are as well.