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.
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!
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.