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The Case Against Sugar

Themes and Key Words:
Current Affairs, Human Interest, Society, History
Running Time:
The Cutting Factory
Michèle Hozer


How did the food industry get us to stop asking the question: is sugar toxic? It all starts with a secret PR campaign dating back to the 1970s. For forty years, Big Sugar deflected all threats to its multi-billion dollar empire, while sweetening the world’s food supply. As obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates skyrocket, doctors are now treating the first generation of children suffering from fatty liver disease. The sugar industry is once again under siege. They dodged the bullet once. Will they do it again?


How did the food industry get us to stop asking the question: is sugar toxic? It all starts with a secret PR campaign dating back to the 1970s. For forty years, Big Sugar deflected all threats to its multi-billion dollar empire, while sweetening the world’s food supply. As obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates skyrocket, doctors are now treating the first generation of children suffering from fatty liver disease. The sugar industry is once again under siege. They dodged the bullet once. Will they do it again?

Today, industry is deploying its old tactics and pulling out the old adage “we just eat too damn much.” This time consumers aren’t buying it. The critics have gotten smarter, bolder, and madder and science is catching up.

Pediatric endocrinologist, Dr. Robert Lustig thinks we’ve all been ‘frucked’ by industry. He’s evangelical, blaming sugar for a waiting room filled with obese kids with fatty livers. His flock of five million online followers grows daily. In the court of public opinion, he’s part of a leading group of experts who are putting sugar on trial.

But Japan’s not waiting for the verdict. For the first time in history, their children are burdened with lifestyle diseases that their parents never faced. To counter a health crisis that could sink their economy, Japan’s introduced a radical new law that takes aim at another ‘bottom line’: the girth of the nation’s waistlines.

Pulling back the curtain on the sugar-coated tactics of an industry once again under attack, Sugar Coated provides a chilling feeling of déjà vu. Today the industry is back sweetening the message. But this time, history comes knocking.

When the doors closed at the Great Western Sugar Company in Colorado in 1976, someone forgot to sweep the floor. Gathering dust in the archives were 1500 pages of internal documents exposing how the sugar industry used tobacco-style tactics to dismiss troubling health claims against their products. Denver dentist turned postdoctoral scholar at the UCSF School of Medicine, Cristin Kearns, knew she’d stumbled on something big: the industry’s secret playbook. Her mentor, Stan Glantz, the superstar professor from San Francisco who brought down Big Tobacco warns, it’s going to get dirty.

While industry and science duke it out, are we sitting on a dietary time bomb?


There is a moment in this film that is decidedly unscientific. But it’s just so true. If you’re a parent, as I am, you’ll get it immediately. Gary Taubes, a very measured, methodical science writer who becomes our unofficial ‘tour guide,’ uncharacteristically veers off script to make a personal observation.

“When you have children, it seems like the world would be a much simpler place without sugar in it. Then I wonder if they would be much more…stable, if their mood swings would be much less volatile if they weren’t consuming sugar.”

I can relate. I would come home from work and see my son stretched out on the couch, groaning about how bad he felt. I’d ask him what he’d eaten. “A huge bowl of cereal and don’t ask me which kind!! Please Mom,” he’d say, “Can you make me some broccoli?”

I was born across from a chocolate factory in Belgium. I was too young to remember this myself, but my mom tells me you could smell the aroma of chocolate from morning to night on the street. Talk about a kid’s paradise! I was addicted to those famous chocolates with the elephant stamps on them that even today, are a classic icon of the Belgian diet. But as we all know, too much of a good thing comes at a price. Today, obesity and diabetes rates are at unprecedented levels around the world. Something’s going on. Can it really be sugar? As a filmmaker, I knew this was a story worth following.

I’ve been a career dieter all my life. I think most women are. I’m also a jogger. I count calories. But who knew that all calories are not created equal? I didn’t. Not until I actually dug into the research for Sugar Coated.

It was only when our team uncovered two vintage documentaries that I had a personal epiphany. We’ve been through this whole debate before. Scientists knew, over forty years ago, that sugar contributed to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. People were actually fighting to put tobacco-like warning labels on sugary foods. And then, somehow, the debate just faded away. Why? What happened? Do we all have collective amnesia? Then, the discovery by Dr. Cristin Kearns of the sugar industry documents from a defunct sugar factory convinced me: there is a much larger story to be told.

Almost everything we eat these days contains sugar, in one form or another. It’s disguised with many, many different names. We are talking about an international, multi-billion dollar industry that has refined a lot more than sugar. It’s refined its messaging and its ‘pitch’ to the public, one spoonful at a time. In the end, I hope this film is an antidote.

Will there be change? I think back to a YouTube video I came across in which a tobacco executive states that some pregnant smokers would prefer to have smaller babies anyway. We laugh about that now. It’s so outrageous. But that was only a few decades ago. Right now, we may be witnessing the beginning of real transformative change in the way we see sugar and the processed food industry. If that’s so, you can thank the cast of characters in Sugar Coated.

If nothing else, through all this, somehow I’ve been the Mother Confessor for all my sugar-addicted friends. We all have guilty pleasures. I still long for those Belgian chocolate bites. But I’ve trained myself to walk away from the glass counter. I’m happy just to savour the aroma, just like I did on the streets of Brussels.


With two films on the Oscar shortlist, Emmy-nominated and Gemini-winning Michèle Hozer has been working as a filmmaker and editor in Canada since 1987. To date, she has worked on more than 50 documentaries. Her work has received accolades from the most prestigious film festivals in the world, including the Sundance Film Festival and the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. Shake Hands with The Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire won both the 2007 Emmy for Best Documentary and the Audience Award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

Promise to the Dead picked up her first International Emmy nomination as an editor. But her directorial debut with Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould won the coveted spot on the Academy Award short list as well as a Gemini for Best Biography. Since its premiere at TIFF in 2009, the feature length documentary has been seen by audiences in Britain, Australia, Japan, and across North America.

In 2012, The Director’s Guild of Canada (DGC) awarded The Allan King Award for Excellence in Documentary to Michèle and team for West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson. At the same time, she picked up both the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival Editing Award and top honours from her peers at Canadian Cinema Editors.

Michèle just completed her first solo feature length documentary in the combined roles of director, editor, and producer for Sugar Coated probing the role of sugar in a global healthcare epidemic. The film, in association with TVO and ZDF/ARTE, will reach international audiences in 2015.


2016 Telefilm Canada
Won Donald Britain Award for Best Social/Political Documentary

2015 CPH: DOX Festival, Denmark

2015 Reykjavik International Film Festival, Iceland

2015 Milan International Film Festival, Italy

2015 DOXA Documentary Festival, Canada

2015 Hot Docs Documentary Festival, Canada


“We’re all taught to think of sugar as the most natural of sweet things, bringing smiles from cradle to grave. But it’s actually more poison than benefit, Michèle Hozer persuasively argues, in an exposé that gives sugar and its corporate pushers many lumps …Robert Kenner’s recent Merchants of Doubt …makes a good companion piece for Sugar Coated. After seeing this film, you might never eat a doughnut or drink orange juice again.”
Peter Howell, TORONTO STAR

“The great thing about this feature doc is its point-of-view filmmaking, a refreshing break from the bland TV-news approach. A couple of apologists for the big sugar companies are included, but the main thrust of almost every interview is to underline either the nefarious effects of over-consumption of sugar and/or the aggressive manoeuvres of the sugar titans to counter any negative reports about sugar.”

“Director Michèle Hozer gets the recipe just right in Sugar Coated as she whips up an intelligent argument with a dash of playful humour. This doc smartly articulates the dangers in consuming sugar in excess quantities, and audiences are likely to swallow this dose of what’s good for them given how succinctly and sweetly Hozer conveys the argument. …Don’t let the sweet tooth of Sugar Coated fool you: this is one sharp doc. Hozer tackles the health risks of sugar with a shrewd eye that looks at the industry from all angles.”

“Sugar consumption continues to be a huge problem, so this documentary is extremely relevant and worth seeing …it is less fear mongering and more factual than most other documentaries like it, which is a refreshing way to tell the story …after watching this film, you’ll think twice about having a soda.”
Danita Steinberg, TORONTO FILM SCENE

C. Kitahara
C. Kitahara

Sou designer de interfaces, especializada em WordPress, fundadora da Comunidade Brasileira de WordPress. Atualmente trabalho como 'Happiness Engineer' na Automattic. I'm a UX designer, WordPress expert, founder of the Brazilian WordPress Community. I currently work as a 'Happiness Engineer' at Automattic.

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