Katie Couric vs. Big Food: She's a "strong feminist," but not an "activist"

America's most beloved TV mom talks about the "inconvenient truth" of obesity -- corporate food has made us fat

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 6, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)

  (AP/Evan Agostini)
(AP/Evan Agostini)

Most people, most of the time, don’t think of the obesity epidemic as a political issue, the way that economic inequality, climate change and health care clearly are. Katie Couric would beg to differ. While the most beloved TV host in the medium’s history describes herself as a “concerned citizen” rather than an activist, Couric’s involvement as executive producer, narrator and reporter in Stephanie Soechtig’s documentary “Fed Up” suggests a newly confrontational manner toward corporate power and governmental mendacity. In my conversation with Couric in a Manhattan hotel meeting room, which began with her leading me by the wrist to the buffet and pouring me a cup of coffee, she actually used the phrase “speak truth to power” to describe the job that she and I, in our different ways, are supposed to do.

“Fed Up” aims to be a film that launches a conversation and builds a constituency, along the lines of “An Inconvenient Truth” or “Food Inc.” (Couric’s friend Laurie David, who produced “An Inconvenient Truth,” also helped make this film.) Of course a 90-minute documentary can only provide a broad-strokes overview of a complicated and contentious issue where science and ideology collide. Even so, “Fed Up” arrives at some startling and provocative conclusions, and is well worth seeing even if you think you understand this issue. Anyhow, is there anything that gets Americans more heated up than debates about what and how we eat?

When we conceive of obesity as the inevitable result of poor individual decision-making on a vast scale – as a question of too many French fries and not enough exercise, times 100 million or so – we’re essentially buying into a Big Lie that’s been fed to us by the major food-processing conglomerates and the United States government. Saying that fat people are fat because they are ignorant or lack impulse control or suffer from a cultural deficit or watch too much TV is almost exactly like saying that poor people are poor because they don’t want to work hard. (Even though "Fed Up" avoids this issue, the two issues – poverty and obesity – are intimately connected, at least in the United States.) It’s the Protestant-ethic default setting in American philosophy, which rejects all societal or structural arguments as namby-pamby socialistic nonsense: Every individual chooses freely whether to be thin and rich, or fat and poor.

But as “Fed Up” explores, the American food system has been rigged to create obesity for more than 30 years: three decades of nutritional lies and half-truths, of the illusory cheapness of fast food, of Pizza Hut and Mickey D's replacing school lunches, and of a confused and conflicted government policy in which agribusiness has trumped public health. It’s not actually an inexplicable coincidence that the introduction of reduced-fat processed foods around the end of the 1970s corresponds closely with the beginnings of the obesity epidemic. Nor is it accidental that the nutritional advice dispensed by the Department of Agriculture and by the major food corporations has emphasized the discredited notion of “energy balance” – calories in vs. calories out – and restricting fat intake. That rests, first of all, on the ludicrous assumption that all calories are identical and interchangeable, whether they come from hamburgers, almonds or root beer, and it also draws no distinction between various kinds of fats with far different nutritional profiles.

We’ve gotten more sophisticated about at least some of those issues in recent years, and “Fed Up” features heart-rending scenes of the parents of severely overweight children trying to work their way through arcane and complicated product labels in search of healthier options. Exercise is a good thing, and eating too much fat is certainly a bad thing, but there’s a pretty clear consensus that neither of those holds the key to the obesity epidemic. In fact, commercial food processors like to talk about calories and fat, because those are things they can manipulate easily. From the early 1980s onward, they have largely done so by dosing first Americans and then the rest of the world with enormous amounts of sugar and other sweeteners. The result, as presented in this film, is not just a staggering increase in obesity, childhood diabetes and associated illnesses but also a widespread addiction to sugar, according to some scientists a substance more toxic and insidious than cocaine or nicotine.

That aspect of the case in “Fed Up” is controversial, and one can argue that Soechtig, David and Couric lean too heavily on anti-sugar evangelist Mark Hyman, the physician, Huffington Post columnist and bestselling author of “Ultraprevention” and “The Blood Sugar Solution.” But whatever you make of Hyman’s radical diet solutions – his pal Bill Clinton sure looks skinnier these days! -- his view that the obesity epidemic is largely the result of people consuming vastly more sugar than they should is strongly supported by biochemistry and nutritional science. All that sweet stuff makes us crave more sweet stuff, and produces long-term metabolic changes in our bodies. In this model, the lack of exercise is more a symptom of disease than a cause. When Couric interviews a University of Alabama researcher who has been supported by the soft-drink industry, and tries to get him to make his case that all those sugary calories are no worse than other calories, he can’t even do it. He stops halfway through a line of half-hearted bullshit and just stares at the floor.

That moment should serve to remind us that Couric is much more than “America’s sweetheart” or the ultimate TV mom. She began her career in broadcast journalism in 1979 in the Washington bureau of ABC News, and joined NBC a decade later as their deputy Pentagon correspondent. Of course she will always be remembered for her 15 years as the approachable and commonsensical anchor of the “Today Show,” and only secondarily for being the first woman to sit in Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite’s chair at CBS. But she has always been a strong interviewer and a solid reporter -- consider her systematic on-air demolition of Sarah Palin in 2008, which singlehandedly made sure that woman will never run for president -- and not just on the “women’s issues” beat.

“Fed Up” signals a subtle but significant evolution in Couric’s career. After 35 years in the network news business, she is entering a new phase. Her daytime talk show for ABC was a ratings failure, and will end later this year. Her principal gig at age 57 is as the global anchor for Yahoo News, and while that’s still a corporate job it comes with the relative freedom of the Internet, where she doesn’t have to be all things to all people or muzzle her own opinions in search of "view from nowhere" impartiality. In other words, she can afford to reveal her wholesome activist-liberal personality more than ever before, and even to make enemies. By suggesting in her polite, matter-of-fact, concerned-citizen fashion that Kraft and ConAgra and Kellogg’s and Coca-Cola have poisoned two generations of Americans, with the government’s connivance, she may do just that.

I was plentifully caffeinated that afternoon, but when Katie Couric makes you coffee, you're damn well going to drink it, am I right? Then we sat down and had our chat.

Working on a film must be something of a new experience to you. You’ve done many shows and segments on health issues in your career. Why tackle this story in this particular way?

I really felt that this issue wasn’t going to get the kind of time it needed on a television show, or even on a news magazine. Stephanie [Soechtig] spent three years researching this. I started to get nervous because all this information was coming out about health and obesity. I was like, “Oh no! This is going to preempt some of the things we talk about in the film.” But I think, actually, the timing is good. I feel like we’re at a tipping point when it comes to really recognizing and understanding this problem and figuring out what, if anything, we can do about it.

This one is different from other health issues you’ve taken on, in that there are some powerful forces on the other side. You know there isn’t a constituency that says, “Don’t have a mammogram.”

Actually there were some critical pieces back in the last year about over-screening. Right? Remember the New York Times story about the false positives you get with PSA tests. So there are some contrarians out there. But I know what you’re saying. I do think that there is a built-in constituency of parents, concerned parents. I just talked to a bunch of mommy bloggers; I’m finding that the moms I know, especially in their 20s, 30s and 40s, seem to be much more aware of this issue than I was when I was bringing up my kids. I was relatively aware of some of these things, but it wasn’t top of mind for me.

What I’m saying is that you’re dealing with powerful forces here, mostly large corporations and, to some extent, the government. This is different for you. I wonder if you would have been able to take this stance on an issue this important when you were a network news employee.

Probably not. Yes, it’s a little David-and-Goliath and I think I would have had to be more cognizant about sponsor backlash and about the commercial side of my business than I am now. Maybe it will come back to haunt me — my involvement in this film — but at this point in my career I just thought to be able to… I had no idea that it was going to, as the film sort of took shape, what the end product was going to be. And I think it’s a pretty tough look at this interaction between government, big food, politics, money, commercial interests, etc. But I think at some point public health has to trump commercial interests. So I was willing to take that chance.

I think this chapter of my career is exciting because I feel more liberated to take on some of these issues, and to do them in a way that I’m not going to be punished for, I’m not going to be considered a pariah at a network.

Of course the networks used to do activist journalism, and even oppositional journalism. You think about the stuff they used to do on “60 Minutes” …

Right. Or you think about “NBC White Papers” back in the day where you did take on powerful interests.

Morley Safer in the jungle, watching a GI setting fire to someone’s house. Lowell Bergman’s reporting about the tobacco industry. Do you think it’s tougher to get away with stuff like that now?

I think there really are so many commercial pressures as the world is changing and the media landscape becomes more fragmented and the bottom line becomes increasingly challenging. I do think, probably, it is hard to do. I think it’s probably today considered crossing the line, where in the past it was considered journalistically … I guess what’s the opposite of crossing the line? It would be considered doing the right thing, right? Speaking truth to power.

Have you gotten any pushback on this movie yet? Anything from Coca-Cola or PepsiCo or Kraft Foods?

As far as I know, not yet. Some people wanted an advance copy and I think there probably is a bit of concern. I think sometimes powerful interests like that think that the less they say, the better. That if they make a stink it’s going to keep it alive. Sort of the publicist school of PR. That maybe if they don’t say much of anything it will go away. So I’m not sure what to expect. What do you think is going to happen?

I think they’re mulling that question over right now, and they want to see how the film plays. I almost felt bad for that professor you interview, the guy who has been funded by the sugar lobby. He literally could not figure out how to answer a question about whether soda was making people fat. How did you understand that moment?

I don’t know. It was just exceedingly awkward and I felt bad for him because you hate to see someone on a human level sort of flail before your eyes. I thought it was very telling.

You go right at the question of whether it’s people’s own fault if they’re too fat. It’s because they’re ignorant, poorly informed, making the wrong choices. And one of the things you show clearly in the film with the families is that most of these people are really trying and that the problem lies somewhere else.

Well, I think some of the criticism of the film has been: “What about personal responsibility?” And of course, inevitably, people are going to cry “nanny state” as well. But I think what became abundantly clear to me is that people just do not have accurate information. I think that they have been misled or just completely uninformed about the products they’re consuming and the ingredients of those products. And, as to your point, you saw the parents buying the food that they thought was healthy. You know? Cereal is a great meal substitute! Well it really isn’t. And my most profound wish about this film is that people are going to be more educated consumers. When they go to the grocery store they're going to look at labels, and when they pick up a drink they're going to see that 32 grams of sugar in one single serving is probably not a good idea. In one single bottle of juice or vitamin water, or “healthy drink,” or Gatorade, right? I think everybody has the basic right to be informed and hopefully they will be more mindful about the decisions they’re making.

You may not be eager to connect this to bigger political issues, but that response you just brought up about personal responsibility strikes me as important. Does that also go with attitudes in society that if people are poor it’s their own damn fault, or that if they can’t afford health care they don’t deserve it? Aren’t all these things aspects of a free-market ideology that’s really powerful in our society?

Well, in a way it’s a social justice issue. I think it’s very easy for people to say, “Well, it’s harder to find healthy food in lower-income neighborhoods and, ergo, there is nothing we can do.” That, to me, is such an abdication of responsibility and concern and compassion. So I think that everybody is entitled to be informed and educated and have the information they need. We can’t make this into a class issue because then it’s easier to walk away from in a way for some people if that makes sense.

OK, since you mention that. From a more left perspective, a lot of people will say that obesity correlates with poverty to a large degree. It might even be an aspect of poverty. Rich people are not fat, speaking generally. And you don’t get into that issue at all.

It was not to avoid it at all. It’s a 90-minute documentary and there’s only so much that we could do. Gosh, we have so much that we couldn’t include in the documentary and there has been a lot written about “food deserts” and about income disparity and the role that plays in the obesity epidemic. That’s certainly a problem. We’re not dismissing it. We’re not saying that that’s not an area that really needs improvement. I think we just couldn’t do everything in one film. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to show this film at the Harlem Village Academies where I mentor on the weekends and that the teachers and the parents will understand the consequences of the food we’re all eating. I think it was very important that when it came to the families we showed a real cross-section from different economic circumstances because this isn’t just a problem for poor people. I think it does correlate with poverty, but it is also a problem across the board and not simply in low-income areas.

Have you prepared yourselves for any specific pushback? What counter-arguments are we going to hear?

Right now we have a wait-and-see attitude about how it’s received and what the response is from certain quarters. We won’t necessarily be surprised if there is pushback, but I don’t think we have come up with an action plan or anything like that. I think we’ll just see what happens. Some of this stuff is pretty indefensible, I think, and some of it might be the same old, same old. Some of the things we heard when people testified on Capitol Hill about soda being fine as long as it’s part of a healthy diet. I think the counterargument will be fascinating!

Speaking of indefensible, I didn’t even realize how much the old-fashioned school lunch has disappeared, and it’s all premade and processed fast foods. I found that pretty shocking, and I’m a parent of school-age children. I really ought to know that.

I think that’s a complex issue, which I appreciate looking into more just than taking what I’m saying here. But I think they get a lot of money from these food companies, from these fast food restaurants and conglomerates or whatever. And I think it makes up a lot of the budget cuts they experience. So it’s really a conundrum for these schools because they really need the dollars that they’re being given and yet they're really handing out such poor nutrition for the kids. I’ve talked to some people who work in schools, and some of the most adamant opponents of changing the food in cafeterias are sometimes the parents. So you have to win them over as well, which is an interesting phenomenon. I’m hoping that all of this will spark these kinds of conversations.

I don’t think the answers to the issue of obesity are in this 90-minute film. Hopefully it will be a catalyst and it will be a jumping-off point so people like you and me and parents and others and teachers and kids themselves can start having these conversations. I think we have turned into this … the food culture is crazy, it’s ubiquitous. We were talking to some of the mommy bloggers about the fact that when I was growing up my mom and dad said that I wasn’t supposed to eat in between meals. When’s the last time you heard that? Right? It’s sort of, when don’t you eat now?

I don’t want to tip over to the “personal responsibility” side, but there are questions about how much the culture has shifted, go to the other side and talk about personal responsibility, but I think there’s a question in the way our whole culture has shifted. I spend the summers in a small town in upstate New York where one of the high-school teachers went on the Internet looking for donations to buy cookbooks for her students. She said none of them knew how to cook, and none of their parents knew how to cook. They ate fast food nearly all the time.

That’s so interesting. I think that we all need to educate ourselves about why that’s the case and about the choices that we’re making and how to cook in a way that’s economical and healthy. And it’s definitely possible. I think the idea that fast food is cheaper is such a misnomer and I think maybe that’s being perpetuated by certain interests that want people to eat more fast food. I think we all have a responsibility to change that kind of recording that we’ve heard so often. But that’s extremely interesting to me. You should talk to Laurie [David] about this. She has written a cookbook about this -- all about the importance of having dinner together -- and it’s something that I have instilled in my kids.

That’s such a shame. The idea of people just nuking whatever it is that they're eating and not sitting down together. I grew up always having dinner with my parents and that’s something I wanted to pass on to my kids. My kids aren’t great cooks but they certainly know how to cook. Some of my fondest memories are in the summertime being able to go to the farm stand and cook things from fresh ingredients and make a meal together. It’s so much fun! But again, back to your original point, sometimes that’s hard. You think about single mothers who are working two jobs. There has to be a way where we can help everyone understand the issue, have the information, and then make changes that will help them and their kids.

Right. It has to be seen in the economic context of today’s world, which is different. You’ve seen this over the course of your career. The majority of women work now, and that wasn’t the case 40 years ago. And that has affected the way that everybody’s home life works and the way that meals are prepared. It’s such a complex problem with so many factors involved. And you don’t want to come off as patronizing or condescending, the way Mike Bloomberg did with his soda ban.

As I said, I can’t emphasize enough that we don’t presume to think that this movie offers all the answers. It is complicated and multifaceted and multifactorial or whatever you want to say. But I just think that even a little bit of knowledge does give you some power. Even if it’s saying, “Gosh, I’m going to look at this label in a completely different way.” Here I was somebody who was fairly educated about my food choices and I learned so much. I was the person who grabbed low-fat everything because I thought: Why wouldn’t that be better for me and my kids? Why wouldn’t I have low-fat peanut butter and low-fat mayonnaise and low-fat salad dressing? You know? And now I look and I think: Oh! I’m not doing that anymore.

You talk about that moment in 1977 where George McGovern has a commission on nutrition and obesity, and the focus of the food industry all of a sudden becomes about fat. So we get light beer and low-fat everything. What’s your sense of how conscious that was on the part of the food industry to shift the focus toward ingredients they could easily control?

I don’t know. But I kind of think they were nervous and they kind of thought: Whoa! If people are going to be more discriminating, we'd better start accommodating them. Don’t you?

It sure took us a long time to figure out the bait-and-switch they pulled there.

It amazes me it has taken me so long to put two and two together. There were so many things that struck me in this film. But when you think about the USDA promoting agriculture — corn, high-fructose corn syrup, etc. — and yet also being responsible for overseeing food in schools and dietary guidelines. You’re thinking: Hmm. Maybe this isn’t a good idea. Maybe this is a conflict of interest! And I thought: Why does the USDA do dietary guidelines? Why doesn’t another agency that’s not promoting U.S. agriculture handle that? What about Health and Human Services? Maybe they should be doing that. Right? It’s just been part of the culture. I knew it all along, but it became so obvious to me. This is not a good arrangement for public policy.

You’ve had a strong record of covering health stories for many years, but you got a lot of pushback for your piece on the HPV vaccine last year, which many people thought was flawed. Do you feel like you came out of that OK? Did you learn something beneficial?

Yes. I’ve thought a lot about that and I think that that show just wasn’t balanced properly. I’ve actually done a lot of soul-searching about public policy and the role of journalists in public policy and I guess the best analogy I came up with is if I were doing a show on colon cancer screening and the first two segments were profiling people who had their colons perforated. Which can happen. But the overall message I think would have been distorted. And I think that’s what happened in that show.

Hey, at least you didn’t do Lara Logan’s Benghazi segment…

[Laughter.] No comment. Yeah, I’m not taking that.

Can we call you an activist now, or is that too strong? You’re verging on it, in this incarnation.

I mean … really? I think I’m a concerned citizen. Listen, I have strong views on a lot of things. I’ve tried to be impartial through much of my career. But I think anyone who knows me or who’s watched me knows that there are issues that I care about — issues about social justice and the rights of all people, including every minority. I think I’ve made no bones about being a strong feminist because feminism is the economic, political and social equality of men and women. When you think about it that way, who’s really against that?

Some people are.

Yeah. [Laughter.] So I think I feel more comfortable being somewhat more outspoken, but I think I didn’t set out to be an activist about this film at all. I just really set out to really find out why, which I think all of us are in journalism for. And when I found out why, there were some truths that were uncovered in the process of making this film. I think they're pretty undeniable and perhaps even a little – inconvenient!

Yes! You’re the Al Gore of obesity.

No, no. Well a lot of people have talked to Laurie about this being the “Inconvenient Truth” about food. I just think it’s very eye-opening. And I think the basis of our democracy is to have an educated electorate, right?

That’s the role that you and I are supposed to play.

That’s the role we’re supposed to play. I’m really proud of this movie and I hope it will change a lot of minds in a personal way and possibly even change some policies. We’ll see. It doesn’t hurt to try.

"Fed Up" opens this week nationwide.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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