When Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau gorged on sugar for two months, he predictably gained 22 pounds, expanded his waist size and developed pre-diabetes.
But surprisingly, he did so without even a taste of soda, candy or dessert.
Gameau, 39, maintained his normal calorie intake but rather than eat home-cooked, unprocessed foods, he consumed standard grocery-store fare. His meals of cereal, yogurt, smoothies and prepared chicken were all loaded with hidden sugars. He ate the equivalent of 40 teaspoons of sugar a day for his documentary That Sugar Film, which is available on streaming services including Amazon Instant Video, Vudu and iTunes.
“The main catch was I wasn’t eating any junk food,” Gameau said last week during a phone interview from Melbourne, Australia. “I was eating these perceived health foods that most parents would give their kids.”
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For years, fat was the villain in Western diets, with food companies lowering fat content and adding sugar to nearly every product — salad dressing, soup, pasta sauce, bread and peanut butter.
Even if you’re taking beverages out of the equation, there’s more and more sugar creeping into more and more different foods.
Michael Goran, director of
“It tastes good and masks the bad taste of all the other chemicals. That’s pretty close to the reality,” said Michael Goran, director of USC’s Childhood Obesity Research Center. “Even if you’re taking beverages out of the equation, there’s more and more sugar creeping into more and more different foods.”
Proposed FDA changes
In response to high rates of obesity and concern about risk of heart disease, the Food and Drug Administration has proposed changing food labels to include the amount of added sugars as a subset of the total.
The percentage daily value would be based on the FDA recommendation that added sugars not exceed 10 percent of total calories, which is 12 teaspoons for a 2,000-calorie diet. The agency said eating added sugars can result in consumption of less nutritious food and increase overall calories.
Research has found that the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, which amounts to an extra 350 calories.
The FDA says the label change would help consumers understand how much sugar is “naturally occurring” and how much has been added. The agency, which is accepting public comment through October, would give food companies two years to begin complying after approval of the regulation.
22 Number of teaspoons of added sugar Americans consumer per day
“Added sugars provide no additional nutrient value, and are often referred to as ‘empty calories,’ ” the agency said in an explanation of the proposal.
This year, the World Health Organization recommended that adults and children limit their consumption of added sugar to no more than 10 percent of daily calories but said the ideal is less than 5 percent, or 6 teaspoons.
The WHO guideline does not apply to the sugars naturally found in fresh fruits, vegetables and milk “because there is no reported evidence of adverse effects of consuming these sugars.”
Some food industry groups oppose the change in labels, with the Sugar Association saying the suggested limit on sugar intake “lacks adequate scientific evidence.”
America is probably the sugar capital of the world.
Filmmaker Damon Gameau
In his film, Gameau dumped spoonfuls of sugar onto his food to show how no one would ever intentionally eat so much sugar in their meal. He also traveled to rural Kentucky to see the phenomenon of rotten teeth known as “Mountain Dew mouth.”
“America is probably the sugar capital of the world,” Gameau said. “It all really starts in America.”
Gameau said he supports the FDA’s move to include added sugars on labels, although he would prefer that every food package front instead display a picture of the number of teaspoons of sugar. Grams are abstract, he said, unless consumers divide the number by four to calculate the number of teaspoons.
“We don’t have to rely on the FDA regulations, we actually get to decide what we put in our mouths,” he said. “We can empower ourselves to learn to read a label, that 4 grams equals 1 teaspoon.”
Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and author of several books about the food industry, said the proposed change will reveal added sweetness where consumers least expect it.
A 16-ounce soft drink is your sugar allotment for the day — that’s it.
Marion Nestle, New York University nutrition professor
“I think that putting a daily value for added sugar will cause people to be utterly astonished at how much sugar there is in food,” Nestle said. “Somebody showed me a kids’ macaroni and cheese product yesterday that had sugar in it.”
But Nestle and other experts agree that it will depend on how much attention consumers pay to the labels.
“For people who look at labels, it will be quite instructive,” she said. “A 16-ounce soft drink is your sugar allotment for the day — that’s it. That will have 100 percent on it.”
Goran, of USC, said most people don’t know how many calories they consume in a day, making it a challenge to interpret food labels.
“I can speak for me and my family; it’s not easy,” Goran said. “We’re pretty informed. I think it’s challenging. It could be simpler.”
The FDA, however, says labeling “may encourage manufacturers to reformulate existing products and offer new products with a healthier nutrition profile.” For instance, after trans fat was added to the label, the FDA said, food makers worked to “significantly decrease” the amount. Trans fats will be banned by June 2018.
Gameau said after his experiment ended and he went back to his usual diet of fruits, vegetables, nuts and meat, his mood and energy improved.
22 Number of teaspoons of added sugar Americans consumer per day
“Things tasted really bad in the first week until I kind of readjusted,” he said. “I had a reference point. I knew how much better I felt when I was eating real foods.”
Gameau said he isn’t out to demonize sugar but rather to educate about excess. He said he enjoys treats from time to time, but processed products now taste too sweet.
350 Number of calories it amounts to
Before he met his wife and changed his eating habits, he used to drink two cans a day of Vanilla Coke.
“It’s so overbearing and the flavor is so strong,” he said. “Your palate does change. You really start to not enjoy overly sweet things anymore.
“When you’re eating real foods, you start to get your vitality back. You feel so much better when you wake up in the morning.”
When it comes to reading food labels, sugar comes in many forms. Here are some other sources: agave nectar, evaporated cane juice, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, cane crystals, honey, dextrose, maltose and high-fructose corn syrup.
Source: Harvard School of Public Health
How much sugar is in your favorite foods?
A teaspoon of sugar makes the food go down. Here is the number of teaspoons of sugar in various foods:
▪ 1 frosted cherry Pop-Tart: 4 1/4
▪ 1 6-ounce container of strawberry Yoplait yogurt: 6 3/4
▪ 1 cup Special K cereal: 1
▪ 1/2 cup Prego marinara sauce: 1 3/4
▪ 2 tablespoons Kraft honey barbecue sauce: 3 1/4
▪ 1 Sara Lee dinner roll: 1
▪ 1 chocolate peanut butter Power Bar: 5 3/4
▪ 1 Grande (16 ounce) Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino: 11 3/4