What the Health, the new journey-to-veganism documentary from Cowspiracy makers Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn is severely let down by its propagandistic nature, leaving the audience wondering how much of what they have seen is actually true. With promotional material portraying the film as a Michael Moore-esque investigation into the politics of healthy living in the United States, the audience quickly realises they’ve been misled into watching some unabashedly partisan vegan indoctrination – a shame, when the message that it is promoting is so timely and important.
Veganism is a rapidly growing trend, with the number of British vegans having more than trebled in the last decade. As well as being an ethical choice for many people, it’s being touted more and more as a solution to many environmental issues and, as this documentary explores in detail, some medical studies have shown it to be a positive choice for personal health. The timing could not have been better for crowd-funded feature What the Health, which was released straight onto streaming service Netflix last month. But a strong message simply isn’t enough, especially when the film fails to tell it in a fair or thoughtful manner. Perhaps they were aiming for the jugular of Netflix’s young and more impressionable audience, but there is a distinct lack of honesty in how this film has been made, ignoring facts in much the same way as they accuse many health organisations of doing.
Beginning with a striking attack on the nutritional value of meat products, with talking heads from various doctors and qualified nutritionists, What the Health next turns its attention to milk and other animal products. Quotations from scathing critiques of these products (many from academic sources) are interspersed with poorly-made animations of how quickly and severely they can damage your body. The film then turns its focus to what was purportedly its main target – American health associations and their sponsors, some of which are clearly inappropriate (many of the largest donors for the American Diabetes Association are pharmaceutical companies who rake in huge amounts through the sales of diabetes medication). After this surprisingly brief section, we move onto what transpires to be the crux of the film: the benefits of a plant-based diet (i.e. veganism). From inspirational quotes from athletes, who are shown to thrive on a vegan diet, to exaggerated before-and-after stories of drug-dependent patients whose lives have been turned around by absconding from meat and dairy for as little as two weeks. Although this message has been drip-fed to the audience from early in the film, the virtues of veganism are now flooding into our veins. We’re even told perhaps the most blatant untruth of the film: our Michael Moore stand-in narrator Kip Andersen, complete with omnipresent cap, has himself converted from the dark-side of meat-eating thanks to his research. The truth is that he has been a vegan for quite a while, as those who have seen his previous film Cowspiracy will know.
What’s really sad about this film is that it features a lot of good information from reputable sources. No-one is really, truly comfortable with the meat and dairy industries, and an out of sight, out of mind attitude is perhaps the easiest way for people to deal with this. By forcing an audience to face these issues head-on, What the Health starts a dialogue that is easy to otherwise avoid. The film swings too far to one side, however, avoiding any criticisms of veganism and stating so many hard-to-believe facts that they eventually do genuinely become hard to believe. What the Health may introduce veganism as a topic of conversation for many people, but it tries to convert its audience into fully-fledged vegan warriors within 92 minutes. Maybe if it had known its place and drawn the line somewhere before images of children being served up cigarettes from a frying pan were deemed appropriate, it would have been more successful in getting people thinking.