by Janan Zaitoun
Eating healthier has been on my mind lately, because of my 21-month-old daughter. Just like most moms, I too find it difficult to keep the junk food away from my daughter, especially, when she sees adoring family and friends who want to get her affection with a candy bar. I’m one of those moms that prefer making everything from scratch with whole wheat and less sugar. A lady standing in line behind me during checkout at a grocery store said to me recently: “I wish I could shop healthy like you!” She was looking at all the vegetables and fruits on the conniver belt. I told her, watching documentaries about what goes in our food is what changed my food choices.
I watched four documentary films: “Hungry for Change”, “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead”, “GMO OMG”, and “Fed Up”. After watching each film, I either stopped or started buying certain foods, and began cooking with several organic ingredients. I’ve chosen to try to take my family on a healthier path; a challenge I’ve accepted in a world where fast food restaurants are on every street and junk food is at a toddler’s reach at every cash register.
“You’re programmed to put on fat whenever there is food available,” says Dr. Christian Northrup, Best-Selling Women’s Health Author, in “Hungry for Change”. “But now, there is a lot of food available, but it’s the wrong kind.”
In both “Hungry for Change” and “Fed Up” (both interview-based documentaries), a huge emphasize is put on the frightening numbers Americans consume of sugar. According to the American Heart Association’s (AHA) website, men should have 9 teaspoons of sugar a day; while, women should only have 6 teaspoons of sugar.
“Today, the average American person is having 22 teaspoons of sugar a day,” says Kris Carr, Filmmaker of “Crazy Sexy Cancer”, in the documentary “Hungry for Change”.
What really made me angry after watching the documentary films is that I learned that sugar is not always labeled as ‘sugar’ under the nutrition facts’ list. It is disguised as artificial sweeteners with unpronounceable names, like: Acesulfame potassium, neohesperidin dihydrochalcone,—and most famously—high fructose syrup. Not only that, if you look at the nutrition facts of any packaged food item, you can find the percentages of each nutrient inside the product but not the percentage of sugar. Why? Because the percentage of sugar found in processed-food is always much higher than what the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends.
“Lobbyists for the sugar industry recommended that 25% of calories in your daily diet should come from sugar,” said the narrator of “Fed Up”. “Two-and-a-half times more than the WHO recommendation.”
That means that the WHO recommended an intake of only 10% of sugar in our daily calorie intake. But in March, 2014, the WHO lowered their sugar intake recommendation even further to %5, according to WHO’s official website.
But let me be honest, can I really stop my daughter from having all the sugary packaged food (or that biscuit my neighbor gave my daughter)? There is only so much in my control. I am perfectly aware that school is a few years away, where my daughter will have freedom from her health-conscious mother for a few hours every day. Frankly, my daughter doesn’t even have to wait that long, her perfectionist mother already breaks the rules more often than she should. Sometimes, it’s the only way to calm my daughter down on a long drive back home. Take out some “healthy” whole wheat Ritz, pop it in her mouth, and (sigh). Does that make me a bad mother because I chose the temporary pleasure of a happy car drive?
The alarming amounts of sugar found in our foods is one concern, another are the Genetically Modified Organisms. GMOs are living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering. Sixty countries around the world have either banned or posed restrictions on the production and sale of GMOs. However, the US government has approved GMOs based on studies that have been conducted by GMO companies, according to the Non-GMO Project’s website.
In “GMO OMG”, Jeremy Seifert lives with his wife and three children in North Carolina. His oldest son, 6, has been collecting seeds for half his life. That gets Seifert thinking about the genetically modified seeds that have dominated America’s crops. He decides to go on a road trip with his family to industrial and organic farms, to Washington DC, and Monsanto—an American multinational agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation—to find out which food products contain GMOs, and how they affect our health.
Seifert simplifies the two types of GMOs into plain English. He says, the first type is a pesticide producer, the second, an herbicide resistor. Basically, with the first type the plant itself becomes a pesticide to certain predator insects, while the second type is sprayed on the plants to kill weeds and other undesirable plants that can damage the crop.
The film highlights the power and control that the GMO producing corporations have gained in the food industry. Seifert drives to Monsanto’s headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri. He enters the huge white brick structure building, but the camera-crew is outside and we can only listen to what happens next. We hear two Monsanto employees meet Seifert the moment he sets foot into the premise of Monsanto. The receptionist hands him a phone with the Site Representative on the other end wanting to speak to him (Seifert had spoken to her earlier on the phone to ask for an interview). She tells him to leave immediately. Seifert leaves, and is convinced that they kicked him out because they do not want the public to know about the health risks of GMOs.
“I couldn’t find anything definitive on the health effects of GMOs,” says Seifert. “Most studies were only three months in length done by the same companies that sell the GMOs. The studies are not peer reviewed and they refuse to release the raw data to the public. Were they hiding something?”
I think they are. Even though Seifert could not find enough evidence on the negative effects of GMOs on our bodies at the beginning of his journey, after Seifert’s visit to Monsanto, he read the news online of a French scientist, Dr. Gilles-Eric Seralini, University of Caen, who had just published a two-year study on the affects of GMOs on rats. He flies to France to meet the Dr. Seralini and finds answers to his questions.
The results show that after four months of feeding the rats GMO products, 80% of the females developed breast tumors. At the end of the first year and beginning of the second, most of the rats had kidney and liver damage. When Monsanto conducted its study on the effects of GMOs, their tests only lasted three months. Had they waited another month, their results would have revealed griever results.
In the “GMO OMG”, we learn through an archive montage that the powerful biotech lobby has been able to stop the Labeling Bill—which means it is not required from GMO companies in the US to label that their products contain GMOs.
Why has the US government allowed Monsanto and its rivals to reach such power? I can only think of one answer, and it’s made up of one word only: money. Monsanto alone is a three-billion dollar industry, according to its 2015 quarterly report posted online.
How then are consumers given a choice to choose between a GMO product and a non-GMO product? Are consumers really putting a sugar-free product in their shopping carts, or are they fooled by their ignorance of the foreign artificial sweetener names listed in the back? Consumers are given an unfair responsibility of making a healthy choice. I say unfair because consumer awareness is veiled on purpose. Therefore, the average Mom cannot make the right choice for her family.
This game played by the food industry, and approved by the government, is bigger than all of us. They have made the world believe that we need the GMO companies to feed the world. Organic farmers tell Seifert that this is a myth used by the agricultural biotechnology industry to justify industrial farming. They insist that organic farms CAN feed the world.
“Fed Up” reveals the irony of this myth when stating that in 2014 the number of deaths caused by obesity have surpassed the number of deaths caused by hunger. The film also focuses on how marketing forces have heavily contributed to the growing trend of obesity. “Fed Up” shows how children are marketers’ favorite targeted audience. Start-when-they’re-young is their philosophy. Through a montage of commercials from the past few decades, the film highlights the subtle messages that have seeped into our living rooms and captivated our children’s minds. The archived commercials reflect how unhealthy foods have been associated with celebrities, cartoon characters on cereal boxes, and surprise toys inside the packaged foods. The food industry has made us believe that eating unhealthy will make us happy.
“Marketing essentially lies to you,” says Mike Adams, Health Journalist and Author, in “Hungry for Change”. “Because it presents you with the promise: You’re going to be sexy, and popular, and cool. But in reality you’re going to be obese, and miserable, and sick.”
After comparing the total sales of Monsanto in 2015 and 2014 found online, I was glad to see that their numbers have decreased this year—except for the soybean seed sales—compared to last year. Is consumer awareness on a rise? I’m hopeful that it is. It could be due to a documentary film, individual efforts, or the combination of the two like Joe Cross’s efforts in “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead”.
Cross is an Australian visiting the United States for two months on a health-awareness mission. Cross weighs 309 lbs, and is suffering from a debilitating autoimmune disease because of his extra weight. He decides to shed the pounds and make a film about his personal journey. He is on a detoxifying diet—drinking fresh vegetables and fruit juices, by using the juicer he has in the trunk of his car. Is this an option for us, the adults, who’ve been consuming junk food all our lives? Is this the way to reverse the damage we’ve done to our bodies?
After watching this film, I began making more smoothies for my family. I put kale, bananas, berries, yogurt, milk, and vanilla with raw honey in a blender. Whip them up, and voila! You have a delicious smoothie that I will NOT be able to live off, or expect my husband to either. But wait, I got my toddler to have kale. That’s an accomplishment. Bad mother? Not this time.
Juicing, buying organic food, or just simply introducing more fruits and vegetables and having less sugar in your diet? It’s all about having the privilege to make your own choice. Hang on a second. No. It’s not just about that. It can’t be just that, especially, if we aren’t aware that there are different food options to choose from. The most effective way to empower ourselves as consumers is to make a personal effort in seeking knowledge. If we wait for the food industry to reduce the amount of sweeteners in food, and wait for the labeling bill of GMOs to pass, and wait for marketers to make commercials of singers and professional soccer players promoting vegetables we might as well die from a heart attack right now.
It’s the responsibility of every one of us to find the truth about every bite we put in our children’s mouths. It starts with a look at the back of the canned food at the grocery store.
“It’s not just what you’re eating. It’s also what’s eating you,” says Carr, “Hungry for Change”.