04/23/2015 13:15 EDT | Updated 07/21/2015 08:59 EDT

'Sugar Coated' documentary explores health dangers of sweets

TORONTO - Is sugar the new tobacco? It's a provocative question that's explored in the documentary "Sugar Coated."

In the film, screening at Toronto's Hot Docs festival, director Michele Hozer takes a hard look at how sugar has escaped scrutiny as a leading cause of obesity, diabetes and heart disease for more than four decades.

In her research, the Emmy-nominated and Gemini Award-winning filmmaker spoke to experts including California childhood obesity expert Robert Lustig, who made the video "Sugar: The Bitter Truth," and New York Times science writer Gary Taubes, author of "Is Sugar Toxic?"

"There was talk of putting tobacco-style warning labels on sugary goods back in the '70s. I didn't know this," said the Toronto-based Hozer.

"And then all of a sudden the debate stopped. What happened? Did we get collective amnesia?

"And I thought: this is the story to be told. The old adage that history is repeating itself was really, for me, the crux of the story."

Food manufacturers say sugars are a harmless source of calories and quick energy, while the medical community says its consumption leads to obesity, tooth decay, diabetes and hyperactivity.

At fault, Lustig claims, is added sugar, found in 74 per cent of packaged foods.

The film states the world's daily consumption of sugar has increased by 46 per cent in the last 30 years.

According to a 2004 Statistics Canada study, teenage boys were consuming an average of 41 teaspoons of total sugars per day. The national average was 26 teaspoons.

"What nobody will argue with, including the folks who believe that sugar is being unfairly victimized, is that we eat way too much of it — way, way, way too much of it — and that its contribution calorically is a huge contributor to obesity. And obesity, in turn, is a huge contributor to the rising rates of Type 2 diabetes," says obesity expert Yoni Freedhoff.

Freedhoff, who practises at the Bariatric Medical Institute of Ottawa and is the author of "The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail," says sugar plays on the bliss factor.

"It's one of the holy trinity of hyper palatability. Salt, sugar and fat are used by the food industry to make food more difficult to resist, both in terms of trying some or having some, and also in terms of stopping having some once you've had a little bit."

What can be confusing for Canadians is that there are 56 names for sugar.

"Coming from agave, from honey, from sugar cane, from sugar beets, from maple syrup, whatever it is, it's still sugar. So natural doesn't make it any less bad or more good," said Freedhoff.

He also argues that the food industry is not entirely at fault in pushing sugar to consumers.

"I waggle my finger a lot more at government for allowing the marketplace we currently have than I do at the food industry. The food industry is doing its job, which is to sell food.... If Health Canada allows them to list synonyms of sugar instead of just sugar, well, then go figure. They're doing that," said Freedhoff, noting it took decades before there was a change in the tobacco industry.

For "Sugar Coated," Hozer sought comment from the Sugar Association in the U.S. and the Canadian Sugar Institute, but they declined to go on camera.

To help consumers figure out the amount of added sugar in their food and set a limit for daily consumption, One Sweet App will be launched Saturday, when the film premieres.

"Sugar Coated" will also be shown at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver on May 4 and 5. A limited release rolls out across Canada starting May 4. The documentary will also be aired in Ontario on May 27 at 9 p.m. ET on TVO.

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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version stated a Canadian sugar study was conducted by Health Canada, not Statistics Canada