That Sugar Film

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday July 31, 2015

'That Sugar Film'
'That Sugar Film'  

Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau takes on the question of how refined sugar -- especially fructose, a substance lurking in foods under any name of friendly-sounding aliases -- damages not just physical health, but also mental (and social) well-being.

Like Morgan Spurlock did before him with the 2004 documentary "Super Size Me," Gameau subjects himself to an extended diet of his movie's subject. The results are appalling. Even though Gameau takes in about the same number of calories each day during his two-month experiment as he normally would -- around 2,300 calories -- his visceral fat increases (choking vital organs), his belly swells, and he begins to show signs of setting off down a road of metabolic and physical dysfunction that could easily lead to fatty liver and diabetes, among other health problems. His moods are also affected, as is his mental clarity.

Here's the thing, though: Gameau isn't eating obvious junk food. Whereas Spurlock gorged on McDonald's fare (which no one is seriously going to argue is health food), Gameau avoids the sorts of foods we typically look at as junk -- ice cream, candy, and the like. Instead, he's eating food that we largely accept as healthful. The problem is that these foods are laden with "hidden sugar," much more of it than you might suspect even if you read the packaging labels. (One industry practice is to describe the amount of sugar in a product according to grams per "serving size" -- but the "servings" in question are laughably tiny.)

At first, Gameau -- whose pre-movie diet avoided most refined sugar -- is dubious that he can meet his daily goal of consuming 40 teaspoons of sugar (around 160 grams). That skepticism vanishes on Day One, at breakfast time, when he realizes that his bowl of cereal, plus low-fat yoghurt, has just introduced the equivalent of 20 teaspoons of sugar to his system -- half the day's allotment.

More graphically informative is the day when Gameau decides to skip the label reading and serving-size interpretation and simply consume the amount of sugar he'd get anyway. The sight of the filmmaker munching on a sandwich of sugar cubes and spooning up sugar from a shockingly full cup is comical, but also revolting. He makes his point.

Gameau is savvy enough to sweeten the film's grim message and leaven its scientific explanations with plenty of humor and creative visuals. We don't lose the message of how bad an excess of sugar is for the human body, but neither do we snore through explanations of triglycerides and liver function. This is a less strident film than "Fed Up," last year's doc on the same subject that also looked at sugar's role in a global health crisis, but Gameau still hits all the crucial marks -- including taking a look at how the food industry has tried to muddy the issue. (Their strategies have been similar to the PR campaigns and the pseudo-science used by tobacco companies and big oil -- tactics designed to fend off government intervention, fool consumers, and keep the bottom line fat.)

One food industry canard is that people battling obesity and its associated health problems need to be responsible for their own diets. But here's the thing: As mentioned above, Gameau hasn't increased his caloric intake. Nor has he decreased his exercise (though he reports a much-decreased willingness to get that exercise). But the sugar-laden calories he's eating during his experiment don't have to exceed the number of calories he takes in when he's eating in a way that really is healthy. They just have to "trick" his liver and his metabolism.

Sugar also lights up parts of the brain in a way that researchers liken to the effects of addictive substances. (Gameau cites a scientific study that shows rats will "work harder for sugar then they will for cocaine.") The food industry doesn't want anyone thinking they are peddling addictive substances, but the research indicates that's exactly what they are doing -- while telling people in ill health that it's their own lack of discipline and their own gluttony that's made them sick, and discounting deceptive marketing practices and relevant science showing the harmful effects of loading food up with sweeteners.

With luck, this film (and "Fed Up" before it) will hasten the day when shoppers have more healthful options and a clearer understanding of what constitutes adequate nutrition. Until then, we've still got the produce aisle... though it might take some time and effort to regain our taste for such things as real fruits and vegetables.


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.