Fast-paced, entertaining and informative, “That Sugar Film” is a cautionary tale about the hidden sugar content in everyday food products, the health problems that high sugar consumption creates, and the food industry’s deliberate efforts to obfuscate the sugar content of various products as well as the ingredient’s addictive power. With its peppy, pop style, complete with silly, colorful special effects and animation, this documentary should prove accessible to school-age viewers, who might profit the most from its frank information about sugar’s effect on their minds and bodies. Although ancillary biz is likely to outweigh theatrical, overall returns should be, er, sweet.
Much like Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me,” “That Sugar Film” centers on an experiment by writer-director-producer-protagonist Damon Gameau, a wiry thirtysomething Aussie awaiting the birth of his first child. Under the guidance of a team of scientists and nutritionists, he becomes a human lab rat, consuming a diet that includes 40 teaspoons of sugar per day for 60 days (40 teaspoons being the Oz average). The catch is that he must do this without consuming any soft drinks, chocolate, ice cream or confections; he will eat only foods that are marketed as “healthy,” such as low-fat yogurt, muesli bars, juices and cereal, but which in fact are laden with hidden sugars.
Even though Gameau continues his normal exercise routine while following this new diet, and his overall calorie intake doesn’t exceed that of his previous high-fat, high-protein regimen, the toll on his health is downright scary. Within three weeks, he develops fatty liver disease, and by the end he has early Type 2 diabetes, heart-disease risks and 11 centimeters of extra girth around his midriff. He also has violent mood swings and an unwavering longing for more and more of the sweet stuff.
As Gameau plays fast and loose with his own health, he also provides a short capitalist history of sugar and shows how it infiltrates the West’s contemporary diet and culture, while celebrities such as Stephen Fry and medical experts chime in with pertinent information. Gameau also makes two road trips that underscore, in disturbingly visceral fashion, the pic’s points about how certain food manufacturers are determined to maintain the status quo regarding the health-destroying aspects of sugar consumption.
In Amata, a remote aboriginal community in the Northern Territory of Australia, the population is a mere 350 souls, but those people drink 40,000 liters of soft drinks per year among them, with devastating consequences to their health. Community workers and elders fought for regulations to limit Coca-Cola and to bring fresh produce into the local store, along with nutrition counseling in schools and clinics. The community’s health improved until the government cut funding for their better nutrition initiatives.
In Barbourville, Ky., Gameau spends a few days with a dentist who operates a mobile dental clinic and treats impoverished local kids who have a condition dubbed “Mountain Dew mouth,” the result of drinking five to six cans of the Pepsi-owned beverage per day. (A 1.25-liter bottle boasts 37 teaspoons of sugar and 50% more caffeine than Coke.) We meet Larry, a 17-year old boy with a mouth full of rotten teeth; he would like to have them all removed and replaced with dentures, but his gums are so infected that it isn’t immediately possible. Shockingly, he maintains that he would still drink Mountain Dew after the procedure.
Lively cutting, inventive visuals and Gameau’s feisty narration keep viewer interest from flagging. Concurrent with the film’s release, Gameau also published “That Sugar Book,” which supplements the film’s data with sensible advice on kicking the sugar habit, foods to avoid, how to shop, how to read labels and how to cook sugar-free food, with the help of more than 30 easily prepared recipes.