D-discussion on ‘That Sugar Film’

Guest Post from Sally Marchini, Dietitian

Recently I attended the Newcastle premiere of ‘That Sugar Film’, with Damon Gameau as the star. I was there because I was invited to participate afterwards as the ‘nutrition expert’ in the 30 minute Q&A with the audience, numbering 640. I thought my experience worth talking about as, although the film is doing an awesome job at raising awareness of how much sugar is in the foods we eat, it’s really important that people understand that eating well is not all about fearing or avoiding one nutrient (in this case, sugar). I believe that achieving optimum health through eating a well balanced diet, consisting of a variety of real foods, mostly plants, is the most important message to take away from this experience, and I hope that is what I communicated to the audience as a panel member.


In ‘That Sugar Film’ Damon Gameau performs an experiment on just himself. Bearing in mind that we’re all different, and, importantly, that this wasn’t a clinical trial, Damon’s self experiment can form a good reminder to us on some key points of understanding about how added sugars in foods can play havoc with our wellbeing in various ways. Damon has written a blog himself explaining what ‘added sugars’ actually means. He explains, as I have previously done, how and why the term ‘added sugars’ does not include the naturally occurring sugars in fruits and dairy. Natural sugars such as these, and other carbohydrates, including whole grains and legumes, also provide essential nutrients for wellbeing. I encourage you to read his blog on this subject (link above) as it provides a well balanced view.

The Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA), of which I am a member, supports the recommendations of the Australian Dietary Guidelines (ADG) about limiting the intake of foods and drinks containing added sugars. Examples are: confectionery; sugar-sweetened soft drinks and cordials; fruit drinks; vitamin waters; energy drinks; and sports drinks. The DAA believes a healthy, balanced diet involves eating appropriate amounts of a wide variety of nutritious foods,  while occasionally being able to enjoy small amounts of ‘discretionary choices’. It’s about taking a balanced approach that is sustainable over the long term.

On that note, remember my  recent blog chatting about Dr Rosemary Stanton’s talk on ‘Why so many controversies?’ Here, Dr Stanton reminds us that junk food, containing free sugars, poor quality fats, and high levels of sodium,  currently accounts for 36% of the energy intake of adults, and greater than 40% of children’s energy intake. Those are scary figures. Those figures are worth considering when choosing foods and drinks, as are the points about added sugars in ‘That Sugar Film’. Making healthy choices is really about being mindful of what is in the foods we’re eating, choosing to buy and eat fresh foods, learning to read labels, and remembering to eat with moderation.

For us with diabetes, I found this experience to be a really good reminder to be mindful in our food choices. We can consider if we could make a healthier choice where there are options.  This is not always possible, so remembering that ‘a little of what you like does you good’, if you make the decision to eat something from our ‘discretionary’ list, then it’s not worth feeling guilty about. Enjoy that choice, try to make it a small amount, and eat slowly and mindfully.

Nourishment and Enjoyment

It is  important to appreciate that we eat food for more reasons that just getting the nutrients we need for good health. Eating is also a social activity and most celebrations are based around eating (think weddings, funerals, get-togethers and more). It’s about learning the balance between nourishment and enjoyment.

As APD Dr Joanna McMillan reminds us, it’s important to take pleasure in what you’re eating because that’s the only way you’ll do it for the long term.  This is such an important message for us all to remember, especially when we have diabetes because it really is every meal for the rest of our lives. As we often say, ‘it’s all about moderation’ and trying where possible to make healthier choices.

Accredited Nutritionist Catherine Saxelby also reinforces these ideas in her blog on this film where she says, “On a more serious note, I believe the film goes overboard on the need to quit sugar. Are we not capable of moderation? Does it have to be total exclusion?”

Nutrition is a developing science

There is a lot to learn about food and how it affects us. I’m constantly reminding people to aim to choose ‘real foods’ from the 5 food groups in the Australian Dietary Guidelines. These guidelines (released in 2013) were developed by real experts who reviewed over 55,000 scientific journal articles. They then translated that evidence into meaningful dietary advice, while reflecting a commitment to best practice standards in health guideline development. This amazing work was done to help all Australians to make better decisions about the foods we choose, to minimise risk of many long term health conditions.

Nutrition science is constantly developing and there are still many discoveries to be made. This is why dietitians constantly study to keep up to date with the latest research so the advice we provide in our medical nutrition therapy is providing you with the safest and most practical advice available.

Some processed foods aren’t all bad

Another point worth making is that ‘That Sugar Film’ demonstrates the large amounts of sugars that can be found in processed foods. It tells us that if you took all the foods off a shelf in a supermarket that contained added sugar, there’d only be about 20% of the foods left there. So this is an exercise for us in learning to read labels, as well as us understanding how to make informed choices of the foods that are there.

Some of these processed foods that are referred to in the film are baked beans, containing the equiv of 1 tsp of sugar per serve. Using baked beans as an example, the beans themselves are highly nutritious and 1 tsp sugar is in the sauce, which also contains nutrients such as lycopene that we need to obtain from cooked tomatoes.  That 1 teaspoon of sugar is not enough to spike your BGLs and baked beans do have a low glycemic index, so they’re a good option for us when we need a meal in a hurry.

There are also other processed foods such as tinned and frozen vegetables, some breakfast cereals, some grainy breads and dairy products that as a dietitian I regularly encourage people to use.  If these products weren’t being recommended, then chances are that people might inadvertently choose something less nutritious in an effort to have a little less sugar. Learning to label read is so important here. Some of the healthier, lower GI breakfast cereals are really convenient options in our busy lives, as well as containing important nutrients that we need for wellbeing, despite containing some added sugars.

Have you seen it?

If you haven’t seen ‘That Sugar Film’ yet, I encourage a viewing as it will help you to reflect on your own intake of ‘added sugars’, and perhaps help you to understand more about yourself and the food you eat. Just remember to come back and re-read here, so you can refresh your memory about the points I have made in this blog so you’re seeing a balanced perspective.

In the words of Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  This is reinforced by the words of Associate Professor and APD Tim Crowe, “Because there are thousands of natural chemicals present in foods, there is no single food that should be called a ‘superfood’. Instead, think ‘superdiets’ that contain plenty of different plant-based foods as the best way to eat for good health.”

Sally  🙂

Sally is owner of her private practice (Marchini Nutrition), has had type 1 diabetes for close to 40 years and coeliac disease for many years too. 


  1. Amanda Clark on March 25, 2015 at 6:55 am

    Hi Sally, nice commentary. You suggest reading labels a couple of times but it may be worth pointing out that the sugar listing is not only the added sugar. I think our labelling could benefit from splitting added from the natural sugars.

    • Sally on March 25, 2015 at 9:49 am

      Hi Amanda,

      Yes, that’s absolutely a valid comment. Certainly the ‘sugar’ word on the nutrition information is very misleading, which is why I tend to ask people to ignore it and only look for added sugars in the ingredients listing. It has been mentioned that with popularity there’s a chance that one day that sugar word in the NIP could be swapped to a GI rating of low, medium or high. Your suggestion of splitting natural from added sugars is also a good one. Certainly the way it is now is not helpful.

      Warm regards, Sally.