Man goes on special diet to prove that it is harmful, films it. Sound familiar? Ten years after hit documentary Super Size Me comes That Sugar Film. Like Super Size Me, That Sugar Film sets out to demonstrate and document the effects a certain diet has on a more or less average person.
Director Damon Gameau is fairly trim and healthy, and hasn’t had refined sugar in two years, and sets out to eat 40 teaspoons of sugar a day in the form of “healthy” foods like low-fat yoghurts, breakfast cereals and juices – often low in fat but high in sugar. The rules: no “junk” foods, only foods that are “healthy”, and he must exercise the same amount he did before the experiment.
Unlike McDonalds, which everyone pretty much accepts is unhealthy, sugar is very much a debated food substance. Most of us are under no pretensions that McDonalds is particularly good for you, whereas sugar is more of a grey area, and most of us consume refined sugars every day in the form of juices, snacks, cereal and soft drinks.
That means that unlike Super Size Me (in which it’s easy to feel superior to the Americans who consume super sized, oily meals), That Sugar Film triggered a sort of defensiveness in me. While I’m not the healthiest of people, I like to think that I’m not terribly unhealthy either. However, I do eat a lot of sugar.
Even so, That Sugar Film manages to stay on the right side of judgemental, laying a lot of the blame on the sugar industry, which is large and bloated enough to rebuff any criticism or scientific scrutiny that comes their way. Pepsi, Coca Cola and other big junk food companies are named and shamed, especially Pepsi. In a trip to a small town in Kentucky, Gameau talks to a 17-year-old whose teeth are almost completely rotted from consuming litres of Mountain Dew each day – an event which isn’t as uncommon as you’d hope. That’s an extreme example, but the film’s point is clear: sugar is not good for you.
Gameau also visits Amata, an Aboriginal town six hours from Alice Springs with a population of just under 400 Aboriginal people. Much of Amata’s population suffers from various illnesses and low life expectancy, despite it being a dry community.
Elders and community leaders place the fault squarely on food availability and the high amount of sugar in said food. Mai Wiru is an organisation which has done a lot to try and combat that, championing healthier, more natural options for their communities. They have had many successes, but unfortunately had their funding cut (visit Mai Wiru or That Sugar Film’s website for more information and ways to help).
The first half plays out sort of like a student film – in the best possible way. It’s earnest, with plenty of quirky intertitles and little scenes. I admit that I was under the impression that this was a small, independent Australian film, which meant that the film had me impressed when it actually brought out the big guns. Stars like Stephen Fry are present, and the animations are playful, colourful and informative.
I went in to That Sugar Film expecting to be preached at, but came out with a greater knowledge of sugar and the sugar industry. I’m not likely to give up sugar any time soon, but it’s never a bad thing to learn more about what you’re eating. In the inevitable comparison with Super Size Me, I thought That Sugar Film was a little light on the politicking of industry. Still, this was a visual and aural treat, and (haha) food for thought.