Sunday, 16 August 2015
That Sugar Film
A decade ago this world has witnessed a brand new entry into the documentary genre, the food sub-genre. It was manifested through a film called Supersize Me, in which a guy demonstrated the evils of fast food by going through a pure fast food diet for a month. That Sugar Film follows on that exact very non scientific formula in a most unoriginal way but with two key differences: first, That Sugar Film hero is based in Melbourne (hooray!); and second, instead of focusing on fast/processed food, our local hero focuses on sugar. For all intents and purposes, the result is the same.
Our hero for the duration of this documentary, Damon Gameau, presents himself as an average guy who - for the sake of attracting his now pregnant girlfriend - has been abstaining from sugar for years. Now, probably in order to make some money by making a film, he decided to experiment and go on the average Aussie's diet instead - a diet that includes 40 teaspoons of sugar a day (with a teaspoon defined as 4cc, that will mean 160cc of sugar a day).
You can guess what happens, otherwise there wouldn't be a movie. Damon puts on a lot of weight, loses his vitality, and starts feeling bad overall. It is important to note that he does not consume more calories than before: he claims to have been consuming 2200 calories a day both before and after. At the end he reverts to his original diet, and lo and behold - he's healthy and slim again. Pretty quickly.
In between Damon's personal story we have ourselves two short pieces hosted by Hugh Jackman and Stephen Fry in which we are informed of the science behind the evils of sugar. The contrast between those high calibre names on one hand and Damon's girlfriend's opinion on the other does feel a bit weird. Add to that some adventures in the heartlands of sugar, central Australia and the USA, where a point is made about the most vulnerable paying the highest price for sugar, and you got yourself all the ingredients for a proper horror documentary about food.
But oh, did I have a problem with That Sugar Film! I will start with a bit of a disclaimer: as I have documented myself, my personal experience seems to confirm Gameau's observations. For reasons completely unrelated to That Sugar Film, I am now taking measures - both successfully and unsuccessfully - to reduce my sugar intake. That, however, does not make That Sugar Film a good film. Or a good documentary, at that.
The first problem is the non scientific manner in which Gameau conducts his exercise. It may look sexy for the cameras, but can we tell whether the effects claimed to be sugar related are simply the effects of changing one's diet? Is our Damon's single sample large enough to draw conclusions from? There is that contrived smell in the air, as if That Sugar Film always knew what it wanted to say and just went through the motions so as to be able to wrap its statement in a movie's shell.
Then there is the matter of the scientific claims made in That Sugar Film. Take the claim that not all calories are equal, and that a calorie of sugar is worse than a calorie of fat. This claim contradicts what we've been told for years, which is fine as long as it can be backed by evidence; but it doesn't receive such backing. We are told, through the very authoritative voice of Stephen Fry, that a sugar calorie turns into blood clotting LDL, but we have to take the movie's word for it. There is no attempt to refute the point or to offer a counter argument, which is vital to the presentation of this movie's core idea. Vital, because if that is indeed the case then everybody out there who is serving sugar is committing mass murder, and that includes hospitals with their hospital food and plenty of other well meaning institutions (as opposed to those evil Coke like conglomerates). Big claims need to be covered by big evidence, yet the evidence provided by That Sugar Film - regardless of whether the core claim ends up being right right - is anecdotal at best.
Also not present in That Sugar Film is a worthy alternative diet to your average 40 spoons a day. Gameau presents his breakfast as such, avocado served with bacon. But is that alternative much better? After all, bacon is heavily processed and comes with its own bag of issues. [I will add my personal insight to the matter of bacon: Mmm... Bacon...]
Overall: That Sugar Film may have a good point, but its presentation is so contrived and its arguments are so at that "trust me, I know" level that it cannot be taken seriously. As a documentary, That Sugar Film is thus a pretty bad one at 2 sweet crabs out of 5.
Do spare a thought for the implications of That Sugar Film actually being right, though. Cataclysmic! I think it's time this world gives sugar a serious look. Hopefully a better look than That Sugar Film's.