Sugar is in the spotlight and people are asking, “How much is too much?” Recently, Health Canada updated the nutrition facts table on food products. The label now includes a reference amount for total sugar and an updated ingredients list. What does this mean? Is all sugar created equal? Let’s take a closer look.
What’s the difference between sugar and added sugar?
Fruit, vegetables and dairy products all naturally contain sugars in the form of fructose, glucose, and lactose. In contrast, sugar added to a food during processing or preparation is known as added sugar. Added sugar can come directly from a natural source (maple syrup, honey, or agave nectar) or can be extracted from beets, sugar cane, rice, corn, or fruit. Regardless of whether you eat foods with added or naturally occuring sugar, in the end, all sources of sugar provide us with energy for our brain and body to function.
Why is too much added sugar a problem?
Foods that are natural sources of sugar, such as fruit, vegetables and dairy products also provide us with beneficial nutrients including fiber, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin C, vitamin A, phosphorus, protein, and potassium. These are the nutrient-rich sources of sugar that are part of a healthy pattern of eating. In fact, most Canadians don’t get enough of these foods1.
In 2015, the WHO released an international sugar guideline. The recommendation "does not refer to the sugars in fresh fruit and vegetables, and sugars naturally present in milk, because there is no reported evidence of adverse effects of consuming these sugars." The real concern is with consuming too much “added sugar” because it displaces healthy foods, which contain important nutrition. This imbalance can have detrimental health consequences.
What does the updated nutrition facts table tell me about sugar?
This spring, Health Canada released changes to the Nutrition Facts table on food labels. The revisions list “sugars” on the label and include a daily limit of 100 grams (25 teaspoons) of total sugars as a reference amount. This reference amount (% DV) is based on allocating approximately 5% of an average person’s daily energy intake to sugar. Both added and naturally occurring sugars are included in the DV listed on the food label. The DV is designed to identify foods that have little to no added sugar (listed with less than 15% of the DV) and those that contain added sugar (listed with greater than 15% of the DV). For example, canned fruit in syrup and flavoured yogurt contain more than 15% DV for sugar, whereas canned fruit in water and plain yogurt contain less than 15% of the DV for sugar.
This also makes it important to check the ingredient list, which is where you will learn if sugar has been added to the product. The ingredients list has also been updated. All sugar-based ingredients will now be grouped together and titled “sugars”. Since ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, it is now easier to see how much sugar is added to a food.
How does Canadian sugar intake measure up?
According to Statistics Canada, more than a third (35%) of our sugar intake comes from added sugar in processed foods and drinks2. Currently Canadians consume an average of 110 grams of sugar per day. Health Canada advises Canadians to limit food and drinks high in sugar and the new labels are designed to help consumers follow this advice.
When compared with Canada’s Food Guide, most Canadians fall short on consuming enough Vegetables and Fruit as well as Milk and Alternatives3. Since these two food groups contain our nutrient-rich sugar sources, let’s take a look at the recommended number of servings and see how it would all add up when compared with the 100 gram sugar reference amount:
An adult who follows the food guide, eating 8 servings of Vegetables & Fruit and 2 servings of Milk & Alternatives, might consume about 75 grams of naturally occurring sugar a day4. This leaves room for 25 grams of added sugar, which would include foods that have a %DV for sugar on the nutrition facts table of 15% or more. In fact, a recent report in the Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research showed the free sugar content of 8000 diets simulated to follow Canada’s Food Guide was only 7%5. This is well within the WHO guidelines.
As a result, there’s space to include a teaspoon of sugar in hot cereal or coffee, swapping in a flavoured yogurt at snack time, and an oatmeal cookie for dessert. Of course if we choose sugary cereals, a pastry for a snack, a soft drink with dinner, things could really add up!
How Can I Reduce My Sugar Intake?
The results from recent research found that following Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating (CFG) allowed for a pattern of eating that limits sugar to within the WHO sugar guideline6. So, if you make efforts to move your eating habits towards following the CFG, you'll be on the right track. Sugar adds flavour to foods and is one of the great pleasures in life, so we don’t want to demonize it. But, let’s be mindful of where it’s coming from and most often choose sources that promote health and satisfaction.
Here are six tips to maximize taste and nutrition while minimizing sugar
For breakfast: Try muesli or plain oatmeal with fruit, nuts, milk/yogurt and a dash of cinnamon. Another option is a smoothie made with yogurt, fruit, milk, and peanut/nut butter.
At meals: Instead of pop, fruit drinks, juice, iced tea, or vitamin water, pour yourself a glass of milk.
Between meals: Keep a pitcher of water in the fridge or a water bottle/glass on your desk with a sprig of mint or a wedge of lemon.
For dessert: Satisfy your sweet tooth with yogurt and fruit.
Spice it up anytime: Swap sugar with cinnamon in cereal, vanilla in a latte, or squeeze lemon or lime on fruit and vegetables.
Get in the kitchen: Homemade foods tend to be lower in sugar. You can also reduce sugar in recipes. Most baked goods can have the sugar cut down by one-third.
If you’d like more tips on how to add value to your food choices, check out the FoodTrack series:
For more information about the WHO sugar guidelines, check out:
For more information about Health Canada’s nutrition labelling consultation, check out:
Note: an earlier version of this article was posted in March 2015, when Canada's proposed nutrition facts table changes were released.
3. 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey - Nutrition, Statistics Canada, 2006
4. Estimate based on 1 medium apple, 1 medium banana, 1/2 cup broccoli, 1/2 cup carrots, 1/2 cup cauliflower, 1/2 cup green beends, 1 medium orange, 1 medium pear, 1 cup milk, 3/4 cup yogurt. http://webprod3.hc-sc.gc.ca/cnf-fce/newSearch-nouvelleRecherche.do?action=new_nouveau&lang=eng