That Sugar Film, a Supersize Me-style documentary out of Australia, uses a sort of cinematic super-sweetness to combat the pervasiveness of sugar in our modern food supply. Filmmaker Damon Gameau’s film is visually over-the-top, with talking head experts appearing on cereal boxes and all sorts of different food labels. The filmmaker also has no trouble appearing on screen himself, showing his handsome CGI-ed person swimming in jam on a slice of toast or dangling on a rope under his own nose. The documentary feels a bit like The Magic School Bus, in that it’s an educational journey that tries hard to be upbeat and encouraging. For those well-versed on the subject of sugar, this approach might seem juvenile. Yet, for people who haven’t see a food-focused film like Fed Up, the core message of this doc could, perhaps, be life-changing.
Unlike Supersize Me, Gameau doesn’t eat McDonald’s or foods that are obviously unhealthy. Instead, his experiment on his own body has the soon-to-be-dad — who’d previously been off sugar for years — eating the average amount of sugar an Australian male ingests in a day. He does this over the course of two months. However, the catch is that Gameau only eats foods that are branded as healthy. No candy bars or ice cream, just things like juices, low-fat yogurts and sports drinks. The teaspoons of sugar add up quickly, and, in a matter of weeks, Gameau’s team of doctors says he shows signs of fatty liver disease. Meanwhile, in the middle of his experiment, Gameau travels to communities deeply affected by sugar consumption. In Kentucky, he meets an 18-year-old boy who’d been drinking Mountain Dew since he was a toddler. We watch (and squirm) as a dentist pulls out his rotting teeth.
Last week, I got a chance to talk with Gameau about his film, sugar, and the responsibilities companies have for public health. He spoke about how Morgan Spurlock helped him with legal issues and what people can do to easily cut out sugar, live healthier and feel better. Below are bits of our conversation, which have been edited for clarity and brevity. That Sugar Film is playing at the Mall of America.
Let’s start this off. Can you take me through your thought process when you started making the film?
It started with being aware that there was a lot of debate about [sugar] in the media. Very contrasting opinions, where some say it’s poison and others say it’s kind of essential for energy. So, the only way to find out was to do an experiment on my own body and really find out the truth.
You know, I had a baby on the way. It was very low budget. We just didn’t know what to expect, and I guess the catch was that I remember walking in a supermarket and seeing a can of tomato soup had 8 teaspoon (of sugar) in it. I thought, I wonder if I could eat the daily [sugar] average that Australians eat and not have any junk food, only eat these perceived healthy foods that have as much, if not more, sugar in them than the junk food.
That’s really how it started.
Then I assembled the right doctors and medical professionals to advise me in nutrition and sort of work out the plan…We didn’t know what to expect. We shot the experiment first. As soon as I noticed that I was having deleterious effects, especially around the fatty liver and what not, that’s when the scale of the film went up. I started doing a lot more research, finding out who the leading scientists were in the world on this topic. How it was effecting other populations, like the aborigine community or even people in Kentucky. Looking for stories on how we could show the effects of sugar.
So that’s really how it eventuated, now it’s the highest grossing documentary of all time in Australia. It’s been an incredible sort of ride and journey, and it’s the sort of story that really needs to get out there and be told.
Yeah. It was very hard for me to watch and not look up how much sugar I was eating in daily foods.
Yeah. Once you notice it, once you’re aware of it, it’s ridiculous how pervasive it is. That’s the point of the film. We’re not trying to demonize and say, ‘You can never have sugar.’ We are just trying to get people to understand how much is in the food supply. And if we’re only supposed to have 6 teaspoons (or 25 grams) a day, which is what the World Health Organization recommends, then you’ve got to know where it’s hiding so you can stick to that limit.
One of the things that’s interesting about the film is that you’ll go to places like Jamba Juice – a place that seems pretty healthy — and show how much sugar is in those products. You don’t shy away from showing the brands. What responsibility do you think these companies have for public health?
I think, ultimately…we’re just aiming to get people down to that recommended amount of daily sugar. If that means you have a Jamba Juice and have six teaspoons a day, great. A half a coke, that’s fine. Companies approached us after the film and said they thought we were going to be more dogmatic, anti-sugar and Michael Moore-ish, but they said, “We get what you’re saying, you have to be aware.”
That said, I think it’s a classic problem of capitalism. I spoke with many people who work at these companies who have no awareness about the impact their products are having. They’re stacked in this office, with a huge board on the screen, it’s got their numbers and goals for each week, different sales points around the world, and that’s the target. They’re not really dealing with the consequences.
I think it’s a difficult situation we’ve got ourselves into. It’s capitalism, and the fact we have a primal desire for sugar — a very real, deep-seated urge for sugary things. That comes from the fact that when we were evolving, [sweet things] were very rare in nature. We saw fruit occasionally. But now [sugar] is found in nearly 80 percent of foods.
We need accountability for some of these brands about what they put on their packets. For now, they can get away with saying things like “Nature’s Bounty” and pictures of flowers and bees and sunsets. The problem is that people are believing these products are healthy, because they are believing what they see on the packets. And, often, these products are full of sugar, and they are clearly not health products.
Did you run into any legal issues with certain brands and having their products in the film?
No. We actually had a bit of help there. We actually reached out to Morgan Spurlock [the maker of Supersize Me], who stayed in touch with us. He went through his own legal battles. We had five lawyers look at the film, they sort of told us that as long as you’re telling the truth, that’s fine. You’re just interpreting a label — that’s deliberately been made ambiguous — and making it more clear to people. So that’s fine. And also, because it was kind of an experiment, it was seen as research, so I was allowed to show the brand.
Can you tell me how you felt as you did the experiment and as it went on?
You know, I guess the fact that I saw such drastic changes so quickly. The fact that I had the signs of fatty liver after just 18 days, and then by the end I had developed full-blown fatty liver disease, that obviously had an impact on the body. I definitely felt sluggish. No doubt about that. I put on 19 pounds, that affected me heavily, I haven’t been that heavy before. I guess the big shock was probably the mental aspect. There’s a lot of research now saying we need to acknowledge the link between food and mental health the same way we look at food and physical fitness. That’s a very emerging field of science. In particular, we need to look at sugar and what happens in the brain, especially when you’re on a high sugar diet and you stop, you crash after that intake, and all these chemicals are released and it can make you feel anxious, jittery and nervous. Especially, studies have come out now on soft drinks and what not, showing the link between violent behavior and irritability and lack of focus is very, very strong. That is going to emerge more and more, and I can relate to that, I am a testament to that. I am sensitive to sugar, and I noticed the mental effects more than anything else. I was happy once I had sugar for about 30-45 minutes, then I’d taper off, feeling vague, aloof and restless until I had another hit again.
What was one of the harder things to give up when you were getting off the sugar diet at the end of the film?
That was actually very easy. Because I had a reference point that other people don’t have. I’d had a few years of very little refined sugar, so I kind of knew how I felt and the type of person I was without sugar. So I was very, very keen to get back to that place, and a lot of people don’t have that reference. They’ve had sugar every day of their lives since they were children, so they don’t actually know what it’s like. Without [sugar], you do feel calmer and more present and just more energized. You don’t get that slump in the afternoon and it’s easy to get out of bed in the morning.
What would you tell parents about sugar? How would you encourage them to pack a lunch?
The American Heart Association recommends children only have three teaspoons of sugar a day. That’s half a small glass of juice, not much. I think what children are getting at school – like that lunch box at the end of the film – it’s so easy to get up into those high amounts of sugar. [Businesses] are really developing kids’ palate and taste preferences and setting them up metabolically for all sorts of conditions later on. I just think it’s so important parents are smart and read labels and are very, very conscious about what they’re giving children. Stick to real foods as much as possible. And, really, kids’ palates can adjust. You can define their level of sweetness. It’s often about trying to move [kids] away from the sodas and the fruit juice. There are things like smoothies you can make, but you use a banana instead of sugar. Put a whole banana in with some coconut milk, some avocado or something, just try to replace their high-sugar food with more healthier versions that are fruit-based. Get them off the refined stuff. That’s where fruit is great. Berries and things like that. Get that to be their treat and dessert, and, obviously, you’re going to set them up to be much calmer and be much healthier as they grow older.
What was it like to see communities heavily affected by sugar in your travels? That one part with the boy in Kentucky, where he’s getting his rotting teeth pulled out at 18, is very hard to watch.
Yeah. I mean that was probably the toughest day of the whole shoot. I didn’t expect that. That only happened very late. We got a phone call very late about that story, and that was a very emotional day for me. Not only seeing that boy go through that, even going with the dentist and seeing children as young as four and five in the same condition. So, yeah, I was just confronting what a lack of education is going on there. Parents saying they should be putting juice in the bottles instead of soda, you’re just like…no.
In the aboriginal culture, the fact that they’re still giving the babies Coke in the bottles, the fact that that’s the highest selling region per capita in the world for Coca-Cola. That is just a staggering figure, considering how popular that drink is. That fact that that isolated northern territory area with all the aboriginal stores, they’re having five or six cans a day. You know, things need to be done because of that poor diet. It’s not alcohol. There’s no alcohol in that area. The diet is directly killing these people, and we need to do something about it.
When people talk about food and nutrition, economics is often brought up. It seems, in general, that people struggling to get by have trouble affording fresh food. So, what role do you think economics plays in public health? And do you think people might be surprised by how similar their spending might be if they bought real food instead of just processed foods?
We look at that in the film. Especially, like, getting away from these refined carbohydrates, constant snacks and cereals and sugary things. You’ve got to buy more of those because you’ll be eating more throughout the day. You’re never full. We’ve demonized all these beautiful fats in the low-fat movement. So what we do is take away the very source that provides the [feeling of fullness], but once you put those back into your life, as I found, and you start the day with some eggs, bacon and avocado, then you’re going to be full for a few hours.
If you’re having a cereal, you’re going to be hungry in about half an hour. That’s what really surprised me. But, again, we need much more help. Education is one aspect, but we need government intervention. There’s talk of a sugar tax all around the world. In the U.K., it’s a big push by the medical association to say, yes, we’ll support the tax as long as it subsidies fresh fruits and vegetables for poor areas. So, really, these real foods can become cheaper than the fake ones.
But it’s tough. We often talk to people in the Q&As, telling them they can make a choice right now. You don’t have to rely on the government, you can make a choice right now about what you want to do. Even if it’s taking the kids to Taco Bell, because that’s what you can afford, at least have water instead of the fizzy drinks or the full-strength sodas. Make the changes that you can, depending on what’s right for you and your budget.
Has making this film gotten you interested in things like animal welfare or any other aspects of food ethics?
Yeah. We’ve always been quite aware of it, but we did put some meat dishes in the film. We really struggled with that, because we don’t have a lot of meat ourselves. We are very aware of meat’s impact on the planet and environment with the meat industry, but we just couldn’t afford to make that a point in the movie. The people we are making this film for are people that do still eat meat. They’re not as aware yet, and just overloading them with too much information, talking about dairy and gluten, people are going to switch off.
Really, we are aiming the film at the people in Kentucky and those aboriginal communities. To talk about sustainability and the cut-the-meat problem, at the moment, is kind of the last of their problems. They’ve got to find a way to eat real foods first and then hope they get to that point.
I was impressed in that your film doesn’t go at the sugar problem with a doomsday tone. Instead, it keeps things humorous, upbeat and encouraging.
Yeah, that was one of the most important things when we started. We didn’t want people leaving the cinema and going, right, there’s nothing I can do. We had to inspire people, to go, you know what, you are empowered. You get to read a label, you get to actually put food in your mouth, you don’t need to rely a government or a guideline or anything else. You can do your own research and take responsibility. I think that’s why the film has done so well so far. People feel happy when they are leaving, their life actually changes…And it’s working. I probably get 200 messages a day from people who’ve changed their entire lives in the last few months. They’ve also been blown away at the behavior of their kids or how much weight they’ve lost.
You know, that’s very validating for us. It’s important. It’s not a diet plan, it’s not about shakes or counting calories or any of that garbage. It’s just going back to eating real food as much as you can, because then the body knows what to do. It releases the right appetite control hormones, it regulates the body as it’s supposed to do…As soon as you mess with that system and start overloading it with different substances, it’s obviously going to throw it out of whack. When people realize it, it’s just about switching those habits, and also adjusting other figures. We know now that sugar is very addictive to people, and it is very hard for people to lower their intake. But once they do, they start noticing huge changes.
If you could eliminate one thing from people’s diets, what would it be?
Absolutely without doubt it would be the drinks, the sugary drinks. And that includes not only soda, which we know about, but even the juices, the sports drinks, the Vitamin Waters, those iced teas you can buy. Even the diet drinks, the research suggests, still mess with you. So that’s the basic one. Just to get people to drink milk or to drink water as much as they can…Just those sports drinks, those sugary drinks, make it a priority not to have them in your life.