A compelling documentary can transform the way we think about any number of subjects, but when it comes to food, they're especially powerful. Everybody eats, after all, and seeing the dark underbelly of our modern, industrialized food system can propel moviegoers into making different choices about what goes on their plates.
Starting with Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 foray into consuming copious amounts of McDonald’s burgers and fries, the last decade has seen a wave of docs from filmmakers training their lenses on food and nutrition.
In no particular order, here are the five can’t-miss documentaries that are sure to change the way you eat, each of them contributing something a little different (but no more or less important) to our national conversation about food.
1. Food, Inc.
“Have you seen Food, Inc.?”
Chances are you’ve either said or heard the words above—probably several times. Food, Inc. was both informative and galvanizing because it was the first nationally released and promoted film to lift the veil on a food industry that has too often put profits above Americans’ health. It examines the ailments of the food system from just about every possible angle but doesn't get bogged down in doom-and-gloom, giving viewers plenty of hope about alternative production methods.
If you’ve met a newly minted vegan in the last five years, chances are pretty good that he or she was influenced in some way by this film. It’s disingenuous to even call it “a film,” as it is really more of a movement, with accompanying books, recipes, follow-up short docs, a vibrant online presence, and zealous adherents. It makes the case for veganism by exploring the claim that “most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting animal-based and processed foods.” And a compelling case it is: One after the other, doctors and patients tell stories of cancers and diet-related diseases being knocked back with plant-based diets. Perhaps better than any other film, Forks Over Knives brings to bear the Hippocratic truth that food should be “thy medicine” and medicine “thy food.”
3. Fed Up
Produced by media icon Katie Couric and Laurie David (An Inconvenient Truth), the 2014 documentary Fed Up builds upon the foundation set by Food, Inc. by exploring America’s obesity crisis through the lens of the ingredient that is killing us: sugar. Sugar, expert after expert states, is precisely what keeps many of us from reaching our health and fitness goals—even when we exercise regularly. And the government may be subsidizing the obesity epidemic through its agriculture policies, weak nutrition standards that cater to food corporations, and sub-standard nutrition for school lunches. Fed Up covers ground that will be familiar to readers of Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Michael Moss’s Salt, Sugar, Fat, but puts together a compelling narrative through expert interviews and stories of ordinary Americans struggling to keep off the pounds.
The newest food documentary just may be the most practical yet. In Defense of Food—which premiers on PBS December 30—adapts and updates Pollan’s 2008 book of the same name, looping in more recent research on diet, political developments, and the emerging field of the microbiome. The film is practical in that it answers the central question of all humans: What should we eat? The answer, which is underscored by looking at studies and cultures from around the globe, is pretty straightforward: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
5. Food Chains
Sanjay Rawal took his time funding (actress Eva Longoria became a producer on the film), filming, and editing Food Chains, which follows a group of Florida tomato pickers as they push supermarket giants to improve the conditions and pay for farmworkers. The film’s title is a play on words, referring both to the trip our food makes from farm to fork and the near-slave conditions endured by the humans throughout that system. Sure to make viewers look at their food differently, Food Chains uncovers the hidden cost of our cheap supermarket food borne daily by the workers who pick, pack, and sell the products we consume.