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Documentaries can lead to real cultural shifts — but that comes with predictable blowback.
Words by Jessica Scott-Reid
It’s been almost ten years since the ground-breaking “vegan” documentary Cowspiracy was released. The pioneering film about the impacts of animal agriculture raised public awareness, perhaps like never before, about the connection between meat and environmental destruction. Cowspiracy set out to catalyze a broader conversation, and influence viewers to rethink what they eat. But it also marked the start of a trend that would grow over the next decade — utilizing the medium of documentary films to highlight underreported information about animal farming, plant-based eating, health and nutrition. Today, the latest doc series to make waves in this space, You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment, is one of the most-watched shows on Netflix, and is creating a serious stir on social media.
But that stir is notably mixed — raising the question of just how much a documentary with a vegan angle can accomplish at this moment in culture.
The new docuseries, You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment follows four of the 22 sets of twins participating in an eight-week study to compare the impacts of diet. One twin eats a balanced omnivore diet while the other genetically identical twin eats a balanced vegan diet.
The study was conducted by Stanford researchers and published in November in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The results were striking: participants on the vegan diet had better cardiometabolic health outcomes compared to the omnivore diet, including a 12 percent drop in LDL (bad) cholesterol, a 20 percent drop in insulin levels and a three percent drop in weight.
Findings of a subsequent preprint study (not yet peer-reviewed) that looked further at the Stanford data were also featured in the film. Here, participants on the vegan diet also saw a reduction in biological age — assessed by examining the lengths of the protective caps at the ends of DNA strands, known as telomeres — in each twin. As individuals age, the lengths of telomeres naturally decrease. The longer telomeres assessed in the twins on a vegan diet pointed to a younger biological age.
But the series goes further than these two studies, to make the environmental, social justice and ethical cases for not eating meat, dairy and eggs. The documentary has a bigger agenda, in other words, and wellness and diet influencers took notice.
Two years after Cowspiracy, another widely watched documentary, What the Health, was released by the same filmmakers, this time making the case for the health risks associated with consuming animal products. Here too, the movie went beyond its central thesis — in this case, health — to expose evidence of government collusion with the meat and dairy industries.
Almost immediately, the backlash began. Vox published “Debunking What the Health, the buzzy new documentary that wants you to be vegan.” Time Magazine went with, “What You Should Know About the Pro-Vegan Netflix Film ‘What the Health,’” arguing that links made in the doc between meat/dairy consumption and cancer were overblown and without necessary nuance. On the other hand, the article notes that claims made regarding conflicts of interest in the food and health industries are real, as are concerns about antibiotic resistance due to meat consumption.
Today, reactions to the You Are What You Eat series have been just as strong, swift and polarizing. While many social media users are expressing shock — “re-thinking their whole lives” — and stating their intentions to go vegan, others have threatened to “cancel their Netflix subscription” due to the “misinformation.”
Some of the voices already have their minds made up. Author and social media personality Dave Asprey — known for advocating for low-carb dieting and putting butter in your coffee, aka bulletproof coffee — called the film “another manipulative piece of propaganda” to his nearly 1 million followers on Instagram. He also claims the study was funded by Beyond Meat (it wasn’t).
Others approached the film with a more open mind. In a review of the documentary on her website, Toronto-based registered dietician Abby Langer criticized the film for being “stacked with experts with an agenda.” While she appreciated some of the film’s points — the agriculture industry’s influence on dietary guidelines and an absence of healthy plant-forward options in many BIPOC communities — she expressed frustration at the lack of “counterbalance.” About the film’s presentation of antibiotic use by the animal agriculture industry, she wrote:
Should the average person be concerned? I’m not sure, because we were only presented with one side of the argument. The average person will probably take that unchallenged side as fact, which is problematic. I would have liked to hear from an unbiased farmer and scientist about this, and about, well, the entire documentary.
Langer clearly isn’t vegan — but she’s no meat advocate either. In a post from 2018, she called the carnivore diet “the perfect example” of a “post-truth era” diet fad.
In reaction to some of the backlash, author and surgeon Dr. Garth Davis came to the defense of the documentary, stating via social media that the Stanford study was “nicely done,” and describing the doc as “excellent.” But he too worried about the presentation, noting that while “I want everybody to see what happens in a factory farm [and] I want everybody to see the climate effects, I don’t really know if that fit in this documentary. And that’s making people say it is biased.”
While some may argue that films like You Are What You Eat and other “vegan” documentaries might better serve the subject matter by letting the science, stats and facts speak for themselves without any attempt to persuade viewers, the question is: would they be entertaining enough to get people to watch in the first place?
It is difficult to measure just how much a documentary can persuade viewers to change what they eat. However, a 2020 preliminary study published in Frontiers in Communication tried to do just that. Researchers showed Cowspiracy to 27 participants. It also showed 21 respondents two episodes of the nature documentary Planet Earth, which made no reference to meat consumption.
The differences were striking: “a significant change in attitude to reduce meat consumption was predicted by the type of documentary they saw,” write the authors. The average attitude score in the group that watched Planet Earth did not change, but increased in the group that watched Cowspiracy. Further, “intention to reduce meat was predicted by the type of documentary they saw […] Intention to eat less meat did not change in the group that watched Planet Earth […] but increased in the group that watched Cowspiracy.”
In a subsequent study by Faunalytics, it was found that 37 percent of surveyed animal advocates said they got their start in the movement after being exposed to some form of media, with 13 percent specifying that media as “full-length documentary, such as Earthlings.”
Jodey Castricano, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, has been teaching critical animal studies for over a decade and has long utilized documentaries about animal farming in her class, including Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home and The End of Meat. She admits though, that there is a fear that once a documentary is widely considered “vegan,” mainstream/meat-eating audiences are more likely to err on the side of their own bias and avoid it, in order to avoid the resulting cognitive dissonance. When asked if she thinks there is such a thing as ‘the curse of the vegan documentary,’ Castricano tells Sentient Media yes, “since ‘vegan’ is often discredited as being ‘preachy’ and is easily dismissed or ridiculed.”
By its very nature, the medium of the “vegan documentary” aims to amuse and appeal to broad audiences, often relying on narrative structure, emotive language and music, all to keep viewers engaged and entertained (and those Netflix ratings up). Thus documentaries can — or sometimes must — oversimplify information and leave out important nuances. This can result in the subject matter being reinterpreted, leaving it vulnerable to criticism; especially when that subject matter is veganism, and even more so when it’s about health and nutrition.
Nutritional science is one of the most complex, varied and ever-evolving (or “messy” as Vox once described) fields of study — because humans are complex, varied and ever-evolving. Making the case for plant-based eating based largely on this fluctuating field can be difficult, so it is understandable to want to fortify that position with the many more concrete and shocking facts about animal agriculture. If the audience is there, hit them with the whole story, right?
There is, however, that risk of catching the “vegan documentary curse” — being deemed biased and then ultimately dismissed. Is this risk worth the reward? Well, so far, You Are What You Eat has been viewed 8 million times. Even with their limitations, “vegan” documentaries are still worth making. As Kate Manzo writes in her journal article on the usefulness of climate change films: “If climate change films cannot offer a complete view of climate change due to the nature of the subject matter and the nature of film […] then climate change films are necessarily imperfect.” In other words, ‘tis better to have these films out in the world, even in their flawed form, than not at all.
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