Death by Cocoa Puff: That Sugar Film **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 1, 2015)

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Coconut fudge really blows down those blues. On the downside, it also leads to metabolic syndrome, obesity, cardiovascular disease, a fatty liver, and type II diabetes. Well, the coconut fudge itself is not The Devil, per se, but rather a toothsome delivery system for the actual culprit. And ye may not recognize him; for his name is legion, and they are many: Agave nectar, barley malt syrup, cane juice crystals, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, lactose, molasses, sorghum or (my favorite) treacle. Yes, the correct answer is: “Sugar”.

So, if you don’t want to die from metabolic syndrome, obesity, cardiovascular disease, a fatty liver, or type II diabetes, the answer is obvious, right? As Marlene Dietrich wryly advises the corpulent Orson Welles in Touch of Evil: “You should lay off those candy bars.” While a good place to start, that’s not necessarily The Answer. That is, if you believe everything that Damon Gameau has to say in his documentary, That Sugar Film.

As Morgan Spurlock did for his 2004 fast food expose, Super Size Me, Gameau donates his (living) body to science, in the interest of public health. Also like his predecessor, Gameau is a (usually) health-conscious individual who sets out to attempt what some might consider an act of nutritional suicide, and to document his experiment for posterity.

Spoiler alert…he lives to tell his tale (but you knew that). Whereas Spurlock scarfed (and barfed) nothing but McDonald’s fare for a month, Gameau super-sizes his study, ingesting the equivalency of 40 teaspoons of sugar daily for two months. While that seems excessive (and undoubtedly is, from a health perspective), Gameau was simply only replicating the daily teenage average consumption of sugar in his native Australia.

The twist is that Gameau did lay off those candy bars. And cookies, and cake, and ice cream. So how did he get all that sugar in his system? He ate healthy…as in “healthy” foods like low-fat yogurt, granola, and Jamba Juice smoothies (he conducted part of his experiment grazing in the U.S.). These are foods laden with “hidden” sugars that many of us (much less teenagers) shovel down our gullets daily. That’s a scary enough thought to process, but by the time Gameau shares that 80% of our processed foods contain sugar, it’s downright depressing (I immediately consoled myself with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s).

The effects of these 60 days of sugary self-abuse on Gameau’s overall health prove similar to Spurlock’s physiological (and psychological) deterioration following his fast food diet: weight gain, an alarming proliferation of fatty tissue in his liver, lethargy, mood swings, and pre-diabetic symptoms (all confirmed by attendant doctors and psychologists). Perhaps the most startling revelation is that Gameau’s daily caloric intake remained nearly identical to his pre-experiment numbers; the difference being that his normal diet consists of healthy fats and proteins (it’s those empty calories that kill you!).

But is any of this really news to anybody? After all, everyone from concerned nutritionists to tyrannical Socialist first ladies have been touting the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits, nuts, veggies and lean protein to the ‘murcan public for some time now. Yet diabetes remains at epidemic levels, and heart disease is still America’s #1 killer. So I suppose most of us must have our heads too firmly implanted in the stuffed-crust pizza.

And know that I am just as guilty as the next rube. I know ice cream is “bad” for me…but it tastes so fucking good! I know I shouldn’t eat sugary cold cereal for breakfast every morning…but I’m too goddam lazy to cook. But that’s a “PP” (personal problem), so what about society at large? The problem, Gameau posits, may go deeper than behavioral issues of self-control, or kicking sugar addiction. He digs into sociopolitical factors, including a parallel study between sugar-related health crises in two economically depressed backwaters; an Aboriginal settlement in Australia and a town in Appalachia.

And then there’s the other “P” word. Profits. The sugar industry (for obvious reasons) has a keen interest in keeping consumers hooked on the sweet stuff, and Gameau delves into some of the more insidious manipulations they routinely engage in, from buying off scientists to pass off puff pieces as “official studies” to the (inevitable) lobbying tactics.

While visually “busy” and distractingly frenetic at times (the film is edited and color-timed like a Katy Perry video) I think the substantive message will be absorbed by viewers. It’s possible that Gameau infused his film with broad theatricality (e.g. hammy cameos by Hugh Jackman and Stephen Fry) to soften the blow. I mean, who really wants to be told they’re digging their grave with an ice cream scoop, or that jolly old Captain Crunch is in reality the Antichrist, in a tri-corner hat? Hey, I know…who wants Trident?

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