The food documentary is generally considered to be one of the lowest incarnations of the documentary art form. There’s political documentaries, social documentaries, religious documentaries, war documentaries, documentaries that follow surgeons and soldiers and elected officials.
Food documentaries are considered to be the lowest rung on the documentary ladder. Documentarians could be out exploring the pointless war on drugs or the shady dealings of the Vietnam War, but these ones have decided to explore the biggest pizza in Texas or what objects you can make out of cake, and for that reason, critics an pundits generally shrug them off in favor of documentaries gun control or the mortgage crisis.
But don’t be so quick to judge, because the food industry and its health effects offer a rich tapestry for filmmakers to delve into. Fast food marketing, the health effects of sugary breakfast cereals, the obesity crisis in America etc. are all rich and important topics that deserve to be investigated and explored in feature length movies, and they have!
But there is a lot of the likes of Man v. Food and Cake Boss polluting the food doc market, so I’ve taken the liberty of wading through all the crap to bring you a definitive list of the fifteen most essential, must-see food documentaries of all time.
15. Forks Over Knives
Like most food documentaries, Forks Over Knives is an attempt to turn you into a vegan. It’s about a bunch of researchers who look into what would happen if you switched a diet of slaughtered animals for a diet of plants, and they try to link that to what causes cancer and diabetes and other diseases. Vegans are like Christians.
Most of them aren’t just happy to be a vegan and live and let live. They have to enforce their agenda on you, too, and try to make you feel ashamed of eating a pig or a cow or a chicken, when that’s kind of the natural order of the planet. But anyway, it’s interesting to see the vegan mindset as they attempt to brainwash you, Bill O’Reilly-style.
It’s less of a documentary and more of a PSA with a very narrow mind. Still, for what it is, it’s brilliantly made. Roger Ebert called it “a film that could save your life.”
14. Food Matters
Food Matters is a documentary about nutrition. It’s not too strenuous to watch as it only runs at about eighty minutes. The filmmakers speak to doctors and nutritionists about the dangers of malnutrition, and it’s a very sobering examination of the subject.
It’s also scary, as it shows just how uneducated those in the medical profession are when it comes to nutrition. So, basically, it turns out that what doctors need to be fully qualified to treat patients isn’t just eight years of college; it’s eight years of college and an eighty-minute viewing of Food Matters.
The movie also posits that a well-balanced and nutritional diet can be used to combat cancer, diabetes, depression, and heart disease. The filmmakers believe that doctors fail to mention this because of the “sickness industry” that profits from treatments over cures.
13. Fat Head
Fat Head was comedian Tom Naughton’s response to Super Size Me, which is quite possibly the most famous food documentary ever made. Naughton was watching Morgan Spurlock’s hit movie as research for a comedy sketch he was doing about fat people and he thought it was, in his own words, “a load of baloney.”
He sought to refute both Super Size Me and the medical theory of lipid hypothesis, which links blood cholesterol with heart disease, and based on The Houston Chronicle’s review, he accomplished what he set out to do. The review said that Fat Head is “similar in premise to Super Size Me and is just as funny but with a very different ending.”
Another reviewer, however, wrote that Naughton’s intended message is “lost in the ill-conceived, confrontational presentation.” But anyway, it’s an entertaining movie.
12. Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead
When an Australian guy named Joe Cross was told by doctors that he was morbidly obese and suffering from an autoimmune disease, he decided to make the drastic switch to a juice fast, consisting of only fruits and vegetables, for sixty days in order to drop the extra hundred pounds that were dragging him into an early grave.
Oh, and of course, he decided to document his adventure, so that other people could be swayed into this way of life that saved his. The reviews were mixed, with The Hollywood Reporter calling the movie an “infomercial passing itself off a documentary,” and The New York Times saying that the movie is “no great shakes as a movie, but as an ad for Mr. Cross’ wellness program, its now healthy heart is in the right place.”
It’s not really a documentary; it’s just advertising to you how a juice fast could get you on the path to health, no matter how far gone you are.
Vegucated is yet another food documentary about the vegan lifestyle. However, this isn’t one of those thinly veiled propaganda pieces about hardcore vegans and their desperate attempts to convert you. This is actually, by definition, a documentary.
It follows a group of New Yorkers who are obsessed with meat and cheese who decide to convert to a strictly vegan diet for six weeks, just to see what it’s like. Vegucated is a film that truly and impartially depicts a story for the purposes of documenting an important part of society for informative purposes. That’s what a documentary is. Oh, and this one’s entertaining, too. Can you believe it? It won a raft of awards, too – the mark of a great documentary, feathers on the poster.
It won Best Documentary at the Toronto Independent Film Festival, the Chris Award for Best Educational Film at the Columbus International Film & Video Festival, Official Selection at the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, and Official Selection at the UK Green Film Festival.
10. King Corn
A documentary about two college graduates who head to Iowa to investigate the impact of corn on the American food industry? Sounds pretty lame, right? Well, it’s not. Critics called it “enormously entertaining.” This isn’t the kind of documentary that simply goes to a place where there’s a lot of a certain industry and interviews the people who work in that industry. Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis immerse themselves in the industry, as they grow and farm their own entire acre of corn.
They knew that the only way to properly portray something isn’t to present facts and information and statistics. They help, but what’s better is actually doing it yourself. That’s what they did with King Corn. What they find is actually quite sobering.
Their crops are just being used to make high fructose corn syrup, a cheap ingredient used in fast food and other foods causing the obesity crisis in America. The Washington Post called the movie “required viewing by anyone planning to visit a supermarket, fast-food joint, or their own refrigerator.”
9. The Search for General Tso
This in-depth documentary explores why the 19th century military leader General Tso had a sweet and spicy chicken dish named after him. That’s quite a hook, right? The historical element takes audiences through the Qing Dynasty and the history of Chinese immigration in the United States, while the food element shows us some delicious chicken and how it gets made.
What a combination. It premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, which is certainly a lucrative festival to get your work showcased at. After that, it was released in theaters and on demand, so you’ll be able to find it to watch somewhere. Critics found the movie to be amusing in its premise and thought-provoking in its execution, which is exactly what you need for a rollicking documentary. The review of the film in Variety called it “a finger-lickin’ good foodie docu.”
Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret is to the dairy industry what Blackfish is to SeaWorld. It’s an exposé that ruins it for anyone who ever liked it before. Many scientists disagree with the film’s claim that killing cows is causing climate change, as they say that the majority of greenhouse gases driving climate change are produced by animal agriculture rather than fossil fuel emissions.
However, other than that, it’s a detailed portrait of the terrible atrocities being down to cows across the world in order to give us milk, cheese, and beef. The movie won the Audience Choice Award at the 2015 South African Eco Film Festival. Be warned of this movie if you like dairy and meat, because journalist Chris Hedges and television personality Porsha Williams credit Cowspiracy with turning them vegan.
7. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
An 85-year-old Japanese sushi chef? Making sushi? That’s it? Well, kind of. That’s the premise behind this story of Jiro Ono, an aging sushi chef who’s a perfectionist and whose son is struggling to live up to his name as he works for him and is groomed to take over the restaurant after Jiro’s imminent death.
But this sounds too dramatic to be true, it’s more like fiction. That’s the power of this movie. It’s a touching and poignant portrayal of the family dynamics of Japanese culture shown through the lens of a food documentary. The film has a rare and impressive 99% score on Rotten Tomatoes, with the accompanying consensus reading, “Beautiful, thoughtful, and engrossing, Jiro Dreams of Sushi should prove satisfying even for filmgoers who don’t care for the cuisine.”
6. Fed Up
Laurie David knows the important issues in America, and uses her power and mountains of wealth being Seinfeld co-creator Larry David’s ex-wife who had a good lawyer and took hundreds of millions of dollars from him in the divorce, to get the message of those issues out there. She did this with Al Gore’s documentary about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, and she did it again with Fed Up, a movie about the causes of obesity in the United States. It’s the fattest country in the world, and just like ex-FLOTUS Michelle Obama, David wanted to find out why. It turns out it’s because of the abhorrent amounts of sugar used in processed foods, and because Big Sugar doesn’t want you to know about it. LA Weekly’s review said that the movie was “poised to be the Inconvenient Truth of the health movement,” and it wasn’t wrong.
5. That Sugar Film
Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau’s documentary That Sugar Film documents his change of diet to have a ‘health conscious’ diet of low fat and high sugar (the equivalent of 200 grams of sugar a day). As a result of this, he gained weight, suffered from fatigue, and contracted fatty liver disease.
The way that Gameau presents scientific and nutritional information is spectacular, as he jumps between comedy sketches, superhero spoofs, musical numbers, little animated segments, and A-listers like Hugh Jackman demonstrating statistics with a podium covered in sugar. It also goes down smooth with the help of famous faces like Jackman and Stephen Fry in front of the camera and the likes of Peter Gabriel and Florence and the Machine on the soundtrack. The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the movie “succeeds in sweetening a potentially bitter subject for easy public consumption.”
4. A Place at the Table
The poster for A Place at the Table is enough to draw you in and convince you to watch it. It depicts an empty plate with a fork on it bearing the American flag. It has the tagline, “One nation. Underfed.” It’s the perfect poster for a movie about hunger in the United States.
Among the critical praise showered upon the film, The Los Angeles Times said it “forcefully makes the case that hunger has serious economic, social, and cultural implications for the nation,” the London Evening Standard said it “explains with devastating simplicity why so many go hungry in a country with more than enough food to go round,” the Toronto HotDocs Film Festival’s Must See List read that that movie is “beautifully shot and edited” with “craft…of a very high level,” and Variety said it is “an engaging and enraging movie that will enlist supporters for its cause.” Is that not enough to hook you in? Guess who the narrator is. It’s only Jeff Bridges!
3. Food, Inc.
Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. is a three-part saga that studies the food industry in depth. In the first part, he examines the industrial production of chicken, pork, and beef, while the second part covers the production of grains and vegetables. Both of these processes are labeled as economically unsustainable.
And then the third and final part goes into the economic and legal powers behind the food industry, like how the labels on food products are regulated by law. It’s a fascinating and informative piece and subject that affects everyone’s lives but that we know very little about. The Staten Island Advance called the movie “excellent” and “sobering,” concluding that it is “a solid success.” The Toronto Sun called it “terrifying” and “frankly riveting, while The San Francisco Examiner called it “visually stylish.”
2. Super Size Me
When you think of food documentaries, you automatically think of Morgan Spurlock’s exposé of McDonald’s and the fast food industry as a whole, as he embarked on an ill-advised quest to eat McDonald’s food for every meal of every day for a whole month for the sake of art. It’s The Godfather of food documentaries.
The daddy of them all, the food documentary that’s the benchmark against which all the rest are held, one of the only documentaries along with the likes of Fahrenheit 9/11 that have reached the phenomenal heights of success comparable to even the biggest hits of mainstream fictional cinema.
And just like all documentaries that reach a certain degree of success, critics the world over put a magnifying glass over it and challenged the words of its interview subjects and drenched the movie in controversy over the accuracy of its portrayal of fast food diets. Also Dave Chappelle did a hilarious sketch parodying it that was supposed to highlight how the movie would’ve gone differently if Spurlock had been black.
1. What the Health
This infamous little movie was released earlier this year. It’s known for turning its viewers into vegans. It’s staunchly anti-meat and anti-dairy, to the point where it pretty much ignores viewpoints that oppose their own. It was advertised as “The Health Film That Health Organizations Don’t Want You To See.”
Now, the film was criticized heavily by medical doctors, nutritionists, and investigative journalists for what they perceived to be cherry-picking the facts to support the points the filmmakers wanted to make, using biased sources, and presenting data that is “weak-to-non-existent.”
However, it’s a fine piece of documentary filmmaking, and the controversy surrounding it makes it more interesting to watch than its subject matter alone. But if you like meat, don’t watch it or you’ll be brainwashed by the movie’s BS.