Is 40 teaspoons of sugar too much for one person per day? You might think so. Yet, as the Australian actor and director Damon Gameau demonstrates, you can eat that amount without exceeding the recommended number of calories or ingesting a single junk food.
In “That Sugar Film”, Gameau—whose normal diet is fashionably free of refined sugars—decides to eat 40 teaspoons of sugar a day for 60 days, while monitoring the effects on his body. The set-up is familiar. Gameau’s film borrows heavily from Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary “Super Size Me”, in which Spurlock ate at McDonald’s three times a day for 30 days and suffered a precipitous decline in health.
Yet the subject of Gameau’s polemic makes it more universally relevant and urgent than Spurlock’s. Audiences could leave “Super Size Me” and feel smug that they didn’t eat Big Macs. By contrast, almost everyone now consumes crazy quantities of sugar. It’s hard not to, when it’s present in 80% of the food now sold in a typical supermarket.
Gameau chose 40 teaspoons because it is how much the average Australian eats every day. He does not consume any fizzy drinks or confectionary; all of the sugar must be “hidden” in apparently nutritious foods. On the first morning of his experiment, Gameau swallows 20 teaspoons at one sitting in a “healthy” breakfast of wholegrain cereal, low-fat yoghurt and juice. “It’s just obscene!” he exclaims.
“That Sugar Film” points the finger at two villains: the low-fat-diet mantra and an under-regulated food industry. In 1955, the American scientist Ancel Keys used flawed data to put forward his famous “lipid” thesis: heart disease, Keys insisted, was caused by eating fat, not sugar. This became the basis of official health advice around the world. For decades, nutritionists encouraged us to worry too much about fat and too little about sugar.
Meanwhile, the giants of the sugar industry freely employed tactics similar to those used by tobacco companies. They funded scientists to publish research stating that sugar was not associated with metabolic disease. Product developers found ever more products—from pizza to teriyaki sauce—to lace with sugar. The market researcher Howard Moskowitz discovered that if manufacturers could engineer sugar in foods to exactly the right “bliss point”, consumers would eat more.
The consequences are less blissful. After just two months of a high-sucrose diet, Gameau shows signs of fatty liver disease and his triglyceride levels (fat in the blood) markedly rise. Despite the fact that his daily calorie intake—roughly 2,300—remains the same, he gains an additional 7% of body fat and suffers mood swings and poor concentration.
The most scandalising footage, however, concerns those who are living a high-sugar diet for real. Gameau visits an Australian Aboriginal community where chronic diseases are rife: asthma, heart disease, diabetes. Pre-contact, people here ate the equivalent of two small pieces of sugar in a whole year. They are now hooked on fizzy drinks and other sugary fare—as of 2008, the Australian Northern Territories drank more Coca Cola per capita than any other region worldwide—and many die before reaching 40.
Equally distressing is the case of a young Kentucky man who drinks 12 cans of Mountain Dew a day and is filmed having all his teeth removed. His gum infection is so bad that the anaesthetic won’t work. A local dentist tells Gameau he sees patients as young as three: toddlers who are given fizzy drinks in a bottle, sucking on tooth-rot all day long.
Some people are clearly more sugar-dependent than others. When his experiment ends, after a couple of shaky weeks, Gameau happily returns to affluent meals of steak and greens or avocado and nuts, shared with his beautiful girlfriend. By contrast, the toothless Kentucky man says he won’t give up his beloved Mountain Dew. The big question that Gameau’s important, if simplistic, film fails to address is why some of us learn to enjoy flavours other than sweetness, while others never do.
That Sugar Film is out now in Australia and New Zealand and will be released in Britain on June 26th and America on July 31st