Krakow Film Festival 2024

Sugar: The sweetest poison?

Should sugar be regarded as a toxin equal to that of tobacco? Two documentaries focus on the sweet drug's damaging effects and on the sugar industry's attempt to trivialise them.
Country: Canada, 2015, 85 min, Czech Republic, 2014, 78 min

We know it’s not good for us, but we’re not necessarily aware of just how damaging sugar actually can be. Two documentaries focus on the sweet stuff’s many negative effects and on the food industry’s work to maintain the general impression that the intake of sugar will not cause serious illnesses.

The experts interviewed in Sugar Coated and Sugar Blues do not dispute that a moderate intake of sugar might not be particularly harmful. However, it seems clear that our intake of the sweet substance is far from moderate: In the last 30 years the world’s total sugar consumption has increased by 46 per cent, according to the Canadian documentary Sugar Coated – directed by Michèle Hozer. During the same period the number of obese people has allegedly doubled to 600 million, while the number of people diagnosed with diabetes has tripled to 347 million. In other words, and to get started with the obvious puns, the consequences of our excessive consumption of sugar aren’t so sweet.

The biggest epidemic in history

Sugar Coated also serves as a disturbing reminder of how deeply sugar is rooted in our culture. Sweet products like cakes and chocolate have become means of expressing both affection and celebration – if not to say symbols of love itself. Sugar plays a usually unquestioned role at birthday parties and weddings, as well as on Christmas, Halloween and Valentine’s Day. Also, the substance is to be found in far more food products than the typical sweets – for instance in cereals, sauces, bread and meat products. The documentary claims that Canadians have 56 different names for what is actually sugar: Fructose, glucose, agave, panocha, syrup, honey, table sugar, cane sugar – to name a few.

One of the film’s central characters is paediatrician Robert H. Lustig – a devoted combater of the sweet threat – who does not hesitate to say that sugar in high doses is toxic. Lustig has written the book Fat Chance: Beating the Odds against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, and his lecture Sugar: The Bitter Truth has reached a wide audience online. Among his alarming claims is that sugar is a direct cause of heart disease, diabetes and obesity, probably also cancer and dementia.

He also argues that these illnesses have become more common than, for instance, HIV in African and Asian countries, as the sugar consumption has increased. The paediatrician also claims that 13 per cent of normal-weight children, and as many as 30 per cent of overweight children, suffer from so-called non-alcoholic fat liver disease – a disease that was not even diagnosed before 1980. According to Lustig, this is the biggest epidemic in the history of the world, which he believes to be directly linked to the intake of sugar.

«Sweet products have become a means of expressing both affection and celebration, if not to say symbols of love itself.»

In Sugar Coated, Lustig’s claims are supported by several less evangelistic voices than himself, among whom are research journalist Gary Taubes and dentist Cristin Kearns. Kearns has disclosed a number of classified documents that reveal how the food industry undermined the presumably ‘health debate’ in the seventies on sugar’s possible toxicity. Their methods are suspiciously similar to those used by the tobacco industry and their spin doctors one decade earlier, not far from how this was portrayed in the TV series Mad Men. How do you sell a product, which – according to scientific research – is directly harmful to the health of consumers? By silencing this research, and turning the attention over to something completely different – like Lucky Strike being «toasted».

Kearns also seems able to provide documentation that the food industry financed alternative research from scientists that came to other – to them sweeter – conclusions, and that these scientists were closely connected to the health authorities.

The silence of the «sugar-spin doctors»

Not everything the film presents is new information. For instance, Robert Lustig was also seen in the American documentary Fed Up (Stephanie Soechtig, 2014) – a film that argued that the hidden sugar content in food products is an important cause of the USA’s obesity problem. On the other hand, Kearns’ revelation of the food industry’s tactics to obliterate research is somewhat of a scoop for filmmaker Hozer, which in itself makes Sugar Coated an important document on this issue.

«Among Lustig’s alarming claims is that sugar is a direct cause of heart disease, diabetes and obesity, probably also cancer and dementia.»

The film includes interviews with several experts, all of whom seem to be sugar-sceptics. According to the credits, Hozer tried to contact several industry organisations and relevant authorities, but they either refused to participate in the film or simply did not reply. Possibly this was after consulting their «sugar spin-doctors», who would know that sometimes the best media strategy is not to appear in the media.

Although the interviewees are plentiful, Michèle Hozer’s film is not a static series of talking heads. On the contrary, it has a light and humorous tone, with frequent use of archive clips from old commercials, as well as animation sequences and other refreshing illustrations. Thus, Sugar Coated is – to sum up with another unavoidable pun – a rather sweet film, despite its somewhat sour content.

Sugar Blues: A personal approach

The less sweet side of sugar intake is also the subject of Andrea Culková’s Sugar Blues – a documentary with both obvious similarities and differences to Sugar Coated. Curiously it starts with a birthday cake, which is shown during the first five minutes of Hozer’s film as well. But perhaps this isn’t a particularly strange coincidence, considering that the cake is an effective illustration of the important position sugar has in our childhoods, as well as when something calls for a celebration.

Sugar Blues is far more of a personal documentary, starting off with the filmmaker herself recently having been diagnosed with diabetes, and therefore having to avoid refined sugar. In the beginning of the film she is pregnant, with a growing concern that her eating habits could be harmful to her child. This makes her investigate the health issues linked to our consumption of sugar, and to start fighting the commercially driven forces she labels as the «Sugar Mafia».

During the five years the film covers, Culková not only makes her family’s kitchen completely sugar free, but also tries to influence others to stay away from sugar through demonstrations and other forms of activism. She also meets with several experts in the field, including Gary Taubes, who also was interviewed in Sugar Coated. And once again, the absence of representatives of the sugar industry, or others who take an alternative stand, is striking.

Sugar Blues Directed by: Andrea Culková

Even though Culková’s personal approach makes Sugar Blues different from Michèle Hozer’s film, many of the conclusions on both the harmful effects of sugar and the food industry’s strategies are the same in the two documentaries. But also in this film there are new insights to be found, thus making the list of potential negative consequences even longer – for instance that the high intake of sugar might lead to ADHD, Alzheimer’s and various forms of autism.

Sweetens the pill with humour

Sugar Blues too includes humoristic elements, in fact more so than Sugar Coated, and is an amusing and charming film with a serious and progressive message. Its characters are more eccentric and quirky than those of Hozer’s film – not least Culková herself, who is a kind of combined investigator and activist. It could be argued that Sugar Blues is more whimsical and anecdotic, but the filmmaker’s clear and strong mission ensures that it never really loses focus and that its structure never feels too loose. Furthermore, its humoristic and essayistic approach never overshadows the facts presented, which towards the end adds some global perspectives for further reflection.

To a certain extent, these two documentaries complement each other – and here we go again – in sweet harmony. Sugar Coated builds up the broadest expert based arguments, whereas Sugar Blues gives more direct insight on how to try to change your own and others’ sugary habits. Quite like we once realised that we had to put out our cigarettes, even though powerful forces tried to tell us that smoking wasn’t really dangerous.

Sugar Coated is available on VOD in some regions.

Sugar Blues is available on amazon.

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Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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