That Sugar Film

Sugar has replaced fat on the ever rotating roster of demonized ingredients. But unlike fat, which we actually need, sugar fully deserves its villainous status. We could eliminate processed sugar from our diets entirely and be much healthier.

A new documentary, That Sugar Film is a Morgan Spurlokian spin on the anti-sugar crusade. It continues where last year’s Fed Up left off. At the center of the film is a stunt: Australian actor Damon Gameau’s goes on a supposedly healthy diet consisting of things like fruit juices, low-fat processed foods, yogurt and granola bars. Of course, all of these highly processed foods are made palatable with copious amounts of sugar. It’s the well documented Snackwell cookie syndrome: large food corporations have removed fat and replaced it with sugar to better keep us addicted to their products. During the course of the film we watch Gameau’s health decline precipitously.

A disclaimer: personally, when it comes to documentaries, I prefer a vérité approach and am not a fan of Spurlock-type hijinks or hyperactive animation, both of which this film has in abundance. Show me don’t tell me is a film making mantra seared into my brain during the brief period I took classes and edited with Jean-Pierre Gorin (Full disclosure: my inner Gorin drives Kelly crazy and makes me a grumpy, no-fun movie going companion.)

That said, what won me over to That Sugar Film is that its heart is decidedly in the right place. The strongest scenes were during visits to two disadvantaged communities, an Aboriginal town in the Australian outback and a poor community in rural Appalachia. You won’t ever forget the early graves of the Aboriginal graveyard and the tragic dental problems of one of the Appalachian protagonists. In these miserable communities, Gameau shows that our addiction to sugar is not a matter of personal choice, but instead a result of predatory capitalism. Large corporations are, to use a Luddite sentiment, engaged in actions “injurious to commonality.” Our solutions to the sugar problem are going to need to address the commons. And, like climate change, there are no easy answers to these larger societal problems. At best we can, like the dentist in That Sugar Film who donates his services in Appalachia, do what we can with whatever means we have. We can also press our cowardly political leaders about their relationships and patronage of the large corporations that rot our teeth give us obesity and diabetes.

But That Sugar Film also tells a personal story. Sugar has crept back into my diet after a period of abstinence following a screening of Fed Up and a brief period of Lenten virtuousness. On a personal level it might be a good idea to periodically ponder Gameau’s expanding gut and declining heath. That Sugar Film might just be the perfect film to bum out the family with or think about when reaching for that slice of cake. Our health may depend on periodic, scary reminders.

In the U.S., that Sugar Film is available on-demand an in theaters on July 31.

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  1. “Gameau shows that our addiction to sugar is not a matter of personal choice, but instead a result of predatory capitalism. Large corporations are, to use a Luddite sentiment, engaged in actions “injurious to commonality.” Our solutions to the sugar problem are going to need to address the commons.”

    And thus we move from personal responsibility and freedom to the infernal meddling and resistance-is-futile collective consciousness that lurks behind *all* progressive thought. Making people do what you want for their own good is always so wholesome and noble, isn’t it?

    Personally, I avoid sugar. And just as personally, when other people start trying to interfere with *my* choices, I get a bit riled up. That you apparently cannot see the dangerous path your thoughts are treading is sadly disappointing.

    This website (and your book, through which I found this website) was all about living wisely – making individual choices to improve how we eat, how we manage land and resources, and how consideration and thoughtfulness on the small scale can be so uniquely beneficial. I suppose your fascination with bees was a sign that you would eventually support the hive approach to human existence.

    Sorry, I’m not a bee. And no matter how much you and others like you think we’d all be better off buzzing to your tune, it doesn’t make it true.

    • “Making people do what you want for their own good is always so wholesome and noble, isn’t it?”

      Alternatively it could be said that the megacorporations whose food feeds the world are also making people do what they want. People don’t always have choices in what to eat – good food isn’t available to everyone. I grew up in poverty living on food stamps and WIC. It wasn’t sugar specifically that was forced on me as a child, but processed food was, and I avoid it at all costs now. I couldn’t do that as a child, I had no choice, and I ate terrible food, because that was what I had. I believe entirely in freedom of choice, and education, and also in restricting the malevolence ( really, just self-interest with a complete disregard for the effects) of the corporations that are unfortunately a large part of our culture and world.

    • This is exactly the problem. Processed food is not only easily accessible, it’s also engineered in such a way to get us addicted to it. And, as you point out, disadvantaged communities bear the brunt of the problem. Someone who is just scraping by, working multiple jobs and raising a family has much more limited food choices than someone like me who can afford to shop at farmers markets and has the time to cook from scratch. Not only are processed foods addictive, but they are marketed to heavy users and poor people. For a deeper look at this issue see a book called Salt Sugar Fat that I reviewed last year:

  2. I have read lots of books about sugar. Actually the first one was about 20 years ago.
    I always believed in eating in moderation. Today that is difficult to do.
    All processed and packaged foods contain sugar…and corn and soy.
    So, to take in sugar in moderation one would need to be a nutritionist or like me, retired with time to read many,many books and read every label.
    Many times, we are the author of our own misfortune, but to expect a working parent to have the time to shop as I do (label reading,research) is, I believe, like expecting miracles.
    Feeding a family should not be this much work. Is it too much to ask the food companies to make it less difficult to find healthy food in the grocery stores.
    The only way I can manage is not to buy processed/packaged food, and to cook everything from scratch, an unrealistic expectation for those with many mouths to feed and busy lives.
    Packaged food can be made with less sugar…and corn and soy, but only if pressure is put on corporations where profit, it seems, comes before nutrition.
    Movies like this (and the Fed up movie) perhaps will help make needed changes.

    We made a change to the peanut butter we buy after I discovered it contained sugar.
    We started using an all natural one, it was hard to find and expensive.
    Kraft now makes an all natural one, the price has decreased and it goes on sale often.
    Changes will be made if consumers demand it.

  3. ” In these miserable communities, Gameau shows that our addiction to sugar is not a matter of personal choice, but instead a result of predatory capitalism.”
    This got me – using the example of an underprivileged (and preyed upon/victim community) as a way to absolve the personal responsibility of every person who ever bought food seems odd. I haven’t watched the documentary, so I may not understand what you are getting at here, but my initial reaction is that we all have a stake in this. Corporations don’t keep products around that don’t sell (cause earning money is their bottom line), but on the flip side corporations spend LOTS of money in advertising to convince us to buy their products in the first place. That’s a vicious cycle, but a corporation’s behavior doesn’t absolve me of my duty to choose food for my body and health as wisely as possible. That being said, not everyone has the same level of curiosity or education about what is in the food products that they buy, not everyone has the time or means to care either. Heck, not everyone even believes that what you put in your body actually has any ties to your health. It’s a tricky topic to address broadly with so many factors all playing in.
    I want to see this documentary though – I’m always encouraged when things like this come out – in today’s visual media craving world, this is a good way to educate people about food and health (vs expecting them to read books or studies on the topic), so I’ll support it.

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