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Hot Docs: Sugar Coated Review

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sugarPhoto attribute: Logan Brumm

Hot Docs: Sugar Coated

The Hot Docs Film Festival just ended in Toronto. I only made it to one documentary: Sugar Coated.

It definitely wasn’t revolutionary — it isn’t exactly a secret that sugar in excess is not great for our health or that it is abundant in our food system. I did learn that there are 56 different names for sugar and that apparently, “26% of diabetes is due to sugar and sugar alone.” I’m not too sure about that statistic…

The makers of Sugar Coated even developed an app that gives you access to “Canada’s first nutrition database with free sugar calculations.”

Japan’s Metabo Law enacted in 2008 was also briefly mentioned. It requires citizens between 40-74 years of age to get their waists measured annually. If a predefined limit is exceeded the “offender” has 3 months to lose weight before being required to see a health professional for advice and monitoring. Companies that do not meet the goals of the program can face large fines. Interesting tactic. It is definitely not in line with the HAES movement and puts too much emphasis on individual responsibility. I’d be very interested to hear if this strategy has been effective.

Dr Yoni Freedhoff and Dr. Arya Sharma made several appearances in the film. Yoni mentioned a video (What’s the Food Industry To Do?) he made after being uninvited to a food industry symposium where he was asked to give a presentation. It is worth watching.

Sugar Coated mentions some pitfalls of industry funded research (which do exist), but I think it is also important to note that industry funded research can be conducted in an ethical way that provides un-biased, high quality evidence. Of course, appropriate safe guards need to be put in place to ensure that industry can not influence research results in anyway — including whether results are published or not.

Without industry funded research, the body of evidence we use to make informed decisions would be much smaller. That being said, if you are assessing research it is important to know how it was funded. If you are suspicious of any conclusions check the methodology (as you always should) and review the data to make sure it is congruent with the conclusions being made.

Sugar Coated really drove home the parallels between the marketing of tobacco and the marketing of sugar. They showed an old clip featuring government officials (I think) stating that nicotine is not addictive! Wow. While it seems there are some parallels here, I do not think that eating sugar should be directly compared to smoking a cigarette. It was also stated in the film that “sugar is not empty calories, it is toxic calories.” A little too much fear-mongering going on there.

Yes, many of us are eating too much sugar — but it is not the route of all evil as the film makes it out to be. It has a purpose and a place in our diets… sometimes. Without sugar many foods we love would not be very enjoyable and enjoying our food is so important.

However, I do not add sugar (AKA honey, maple syrup, agave, coconut sugar… insert the other 51 names here) to foods I eat daily and I do not buy many foods with added sugar. Looking for delicious ways to enjoy food and beverages without added sugar is important. Cutting back your intake slowly can help.

Overall, I think we really need to stop vilifying specific foods — gluten, wheat, sugar, saturated fat, etc. — the way documentaries like Sugar Coated and Fed Up do. It instills unnecessary fear in people and makes eating well even more confusing! Our diets should not be overrun by any one food, but obsessing about every little thing we put in our mouths is doing more harm than good.

RELAX!

Enjoy some ice cream this summer, drizzle coconut oil or butter on your popcorn, savour fresh wheat bread from the bakery — these are simple pleasures in life, which you should enjoy mindfully and not stress about. Including plenty of fruits and vegetables, eating mostly unprocessed foods, and cooking at home is important too of course!

garden

At the end of the documentary, someone involved with the film came out and announced that Health Canada will not be adding “added sugar” to our nutrition facts table as previously proposed (I have not verified this).

I do think this would have been a great addition to the table (albeit maybe making it even more confusing for consumers to understand), but the ingredients list really is the most important piece of information to look at on a package anyway. Usually, short lists with recognizable ingredients are the way to go. Better yet — buy foods without packages all together!

The government could definitely play a much bigger role in supporting us to make better food choices. And the food industry does need to be reined in, especially when it comes to healthwashing. But that is a long conversation for another day.

Have you seen Sugar Coated or Fed Up? What do you think about all the sugar in our food system? I would love your opinion! Please share in the comments section below.

5 Comments || Hot Docs: Sugar Coated Review

  1. Your post makes murky waters even murkier and I really think that you have missed an important point of the film. It doesn’t vilify glucose or sucrose or fructose as it occurs in nature. Sugars are naturally found in many places in real foods that are a basic part of a normal healthy diet. When consumed in that fashion, you could easily make a case for them being generally regarded as safe (GRAS). Instead it vilifies a food industry that uses highly refined sugars in many forms to make packaged foods more palatable and because of deceptive marketing and lobbying techniques, the amounts are completely unregulated.

    Moderation is tough to quantify so let’s place these numbers in an easy context for everyone. The WHO is recommending that total sugar intake should be no more than 25 grams per day. Just one 12 ounce can of coca-cola has 39 grams of sugar. If you drink even 1 can of soda, then you have ingested almost 150% of the WHO recommended amount. 250 ml of Tropicana orange juice has 23 grams of sugar, 90% of your WHO recommended amount. Finally, one 6 oz Chobani Greek yogurt with fruit on the bottom has between 17-21 grams of sugar in it depending on flavor.

    Compare that to 1 whole cup of strawberries which has about 7.4 grams of sugar and I think you get my point. The idea that people can consume sugar in moderation when 1 serving of most snack foods or beverages has 90% or higher amounts of the daily recommended amount of sugar is naive. If you don’t believe me, then try following the WHO recommendations by only purchasing boxed/bagged/bottled items in the grocery store that have less than 25 grams of sugar per serving and only eating one serving of one item a day. I’ll give you all the naturally occurring sugar in fruits and vegetables free even though it should count as well.

    • Hi Adam, thanks for your comment. You make some good points. There is a ton of added sugar in our food system. I think the point I was trying to make is that we need to stop vilifying one ingredient, such as sugar, and focus on more holistic, multifactorial initiatives to enable consumers to consistently make healthy choices (that are easy to make). Our food environments and advertising regulations (especially regarding children) need to be improved as well. The new discussion of taxing sugar sweetened beverages could be a step in the right direction but it won’t make a big impact on its own. Although, I’m intrigued with the pressure this will put on industry to reformulate their beverages…but I also don’t want to see more consumers drinking artificially sweetened beverages either. Anyway, this could could become a very lengthy conversation, so I’ll stop there, but thank you for your comment.

      Melissa

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