Fast Food Baby Documentary Review Essay

I got no control over what he eats," said one of the parents in Fast Food Baby. The man voicing this hapless admission of surrender was about six-foot tall and weighed – at a rough guess – around 16 stone. The infant who had overmastered him was about two-foot high and can't have weighed more than three stone, though he was already working hard to catch up with his father, grazing almost continuously on takeaways, sweets and up to six cans of cola a day. And, yes, having gone mano-a-mano with a three-year-old myself in the past, I know that the weigh-in can often be deceptive about respective strength. But even so. From the very beginning of BBC3's film, it was clear that parental spinelessness is the very worst thing you can add to a child's diet.

Cuba's mum and dad grasped the basic theory of healthy nutrition, but were too daffily fond to apply it. "It's hard to say no to him," said Cuba's mum, who had sidestepped the effort of trying by filling a floor level cupboard with edible trash, so that Cuba could top up his calorific intake whenever he fancied. Kara and Gareth, by contrast, really did appear to be trying hard to get a few vitamins into their son, but had been left fatally susceptible to his crying by a near-fatal bout of meningitis. He now understood that all he had to do to get fish and chips and his favourite television show was to grizzle for a while. And Taylor, a single mum living in Runcorn, was actually intervening to prevent her son's diet improving even by accident. "I like pears!" he said, fingers grasping curiously as he was wheeled past the fruit in the local supermarket. "Ugh!" replied his mother. "You've never tasted a pear."

Programmes like this present us with a have-your-cake-and-eat-it deal when it comes to judgemental superiority. We know that we're not supposed to look down on those depicted, and that they will eventually be coaxed into the light by nutritional missionaries. But the set-up makes any other perspective pretty much impossible. As you watched Taylor's son Harley guzzling down cola and listened to her explain that she hadn't taken him for a dental check-up because she's scared of dentists, it briefly occurred to you that his best prospect of healthy diet would be a more serious recurrence of the heart attack his mother had already had. She never wanted to go through anything like that again, she assured us earnestly, in one of the brief gaps when she didn't have a kebab, or an alcopop or a cigarette in her mouth.

Never despair though. Not only did Kara and Gareth learn some techniques for getting fresh food into their son, Cuba's mum and dad also took their first hesitant steps towards home cooking. Taylor even claimed on camera to have seen the light, cooking up a healthier home-made pizza after attending a single mum's cookery class. In her case, I suspect that the dietary virtue will stick for about as long as a microwave pizza would adhere to the kitchen wall, before sliding loose in a puddle of hydrogenated fats, but it's possible that the sight of her dim-witted delinquency will have stirred a determination to do better in at least some of the programme's viewers.

"It's now time for the nitty-gritty of business," said Theo Paphitis in Britain's Next Big Thing. "The fun starts here." The programme has now got beyond the selection process, in which top British retailers selected the products they wanted to put on their shelves, to the bit where the details of costing and delivery have to be worked out. And not everyone agreed with Theo's characterisation of the narrative curve. "This is where the hard bit starts actually," said Andy Atkinson, a category manager for Boots, "this is the hard yards."

They were certainly eye-opening for anyone who was assuming that catching the eye of a big store was a certain route to profit. Charlotte Sale, whose rather beautiful splash-shaped glass bowls had been snapped up by Liberty, revealed that she was supplying the big ones on a sale-or-return basis, meaning that she had to front up £1,000 just to supply the order, with no guarantee that the items would sell. And Catherine Gray discovered that if she licensed her ceramic vase design to Habitat she would end up with just 30 pence per sale. If they sold 3,000, she would get just £900 out of the deal, while simultaneously undercutting the market for her own more expensive bespoke versions. And nobody mentioned the fact that both retailers are dedicated to a fashion cycle, ruthlessly moving on from one design once the profit had been squeezed out of it. The hardest lesson was for Elaine Weston, whose home-made range of teenage cosmetics suffered death by focus group, after a panel of teenagers had unerringly identified its commercial defects.

Theo tried to make us feel sympathy for the big retailers by demonstrating how slender the profit margins are once all the overheads have been paid off, but he couldn't really conceal the fact that the only area in which the creators and the craftsmen were getting the biggest slice of the pie was when it came to taking on the risk. If you found yourself hankering after one of Charlotte's bowls, now that Liberty's buyers have endorsed their good taste, you might want to buy directly from her so that she gets a bigger share of the pie. She does have a website.

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First came An Inconvenient Truth. Then Fast Food Nation. Then Blackfish. Each showed the power of critically acclaimed, successful documentaries to alter perceptions about controversial issues ranging from global warming to mistreatment of animals in captivity and the behaviour of food industry giants.

Now comesFed Up, a film that looks at the global problem of surging human obesity rates and obesity-related diseases. The film, produced by Laurie David, former wife of Seinfeld creator Larry David, and narrated by TV journalist Katie Couric, seeks to challenge decades of misconception and food industry-sponsored misinformation about diet and exercise, good and bad calories, fat genes and lifestyle. When it comes to obesity, fat may not be our friend but it's not the enemy that sugar is, says the film's scientific consultant Robert Lustig, a neuroendocrinologist, author and president of the Institute for Responsible Nutrition. It is a view that is gathering support from doctors.

A US government study recently found that 17% of children and young people aged between two and 19 are considered obese. Another predicted that today's American children will lead shorter lives than their parents. Laurie David, who made the climate change film An Inconvenient Truth, calls that statistic "sobering and tragic".

According to Lustig, however, neither obesity nor fat is the issue. "The food industry wants you to focus on three falsehoods that keep it from facing issues of culpability. One, it's about obesity. Two, a calorie is a calorie. Three, it's about personal responsibility."

If obesity was the issue, metabolic illnesses that typically show up in the obese would not be showing up at rates found in the normal-weight population. More than half the populations of the US and UK are experiencing effects normally associated with obesity. If more than half the population has problems, it can't be a behaviour issue. It must be an exposure problem. And that exposure is to sugar."

The film claims that fast-food chains and the makers of processed foods have added more sugar to "low fat" foods to make them more palatable.

The sugar surge adds up to a problem not only for low-income groups that are often associated with diet-related health issues, but for all levels of society, say the film-makers. The film says big business is poisoning us with food marketed under the guise of health benefits.

Early-onset type 2 diabetes, a condition associated with exposure to cane sugar and corn syrup, was virtually unknown a few years ago. If current rates continue, one in three Americans will have type 2 diabetes by 2050. "Obesity costs very little and is not dangerous in and of itself," says Lustig, who works with the UK's Action on Sugar campaign. "But diabetes costs a whole lot in terms of social evolution, decreased productivity, medical and pharmaceutical costs, and death."

But while the fight against obesity is championed by first lady Michelle Obama, efforts to curb the sugar industry have largely failed. In 2003 the Bush administration threatened to withhold US funding to the World Health Organisation if it published nutritional guidelines advocating that no more than 10% of calories in a daily diet should come from sugar. Moreover, Washington has sweetened the profits of the manufacturers of corn-based sweeteners by awarding billions of dollars in trade subsidies.

The film-makers say it is not in the interest of food, beverage or pharmaceutical companies to reduce sugar content. "It's too profitable," says Lustig. The pharmaceutical industry talks of diabetes treatment, not prevention. "The food industry makes a disease and the pharmaceutical industry treats it. They make out like bandits while the rest of us are being taken to the cleaners."

Lustig says laws are needed. The model for regulation is alcohol since alcohol metabolises as sugar and produces many of the same chronic diseases while fat metabolises differently.

But Lustig believes that education or government guidelines alone are inadequate to address substance abuse problems. "What's necessary is to limit availability to reduce consumption and reduce alcohol-related health problems," he says.

Proposals include putting health warnings on soft-drinks cans, giving equal advertising time to marketing fresh fruit and vegetables and voluntary agreements to reduce sugar content.

Lustig says: "If the food industry continues to obfuscate, we will never solve this and by 2026 we will not have healthcare because we will be broke. Food producers are going to have to be forced. There's only one group that can force them, and that's the government. There's one group that can force the government, and that's the people."

• This article was amended on 16 May 2014. An earlier version referred simply to "diabetes", rather than make the distinction that type 2 diabetes was meant. Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune condition, not triggered by lifestyle, primarily affecting young children and adolescents.

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