Sugar is in the spotlight and people are asking, “How much is too much?” The WHO released guidelines yesteday (March 4, 2015) suggesting a limit of free sugar consumption of no more than 10% of daily energy intake (approximately 12 teaspoons). What does this mean? Is all sugar created equal? Let’s take a closer look.
What’s the difference between sugar and “free sugar”?
Fruit, vegetables and dairy products all naturally contain sugars in the form of fructose, glucose, and lactose. Sugar added to a food during processing or preparation, as well as fruit juice and fruit juice concentrate, is known as “free sugar”. Free 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 the initial source, all sugar is broken down in the body into one of three simple sugars: glucose, fructose, and galactose. Although they may be absorbed slightly differently, in the end, all sources of sugar provide us with energy for our brain and body to function.
Why is too much “free 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.
According to the WHO, their guideline "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 “free sugar” because it displaces healthy foods, which contain important nutrition. This imbalance can have detrimental health consequences.
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. There are no specific Canadian guidelines for sugar consumption, only the advice to limit food and drinks high in sugar. However, last summer Health Canada released proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts table on food labels. The revisions list “added sugar” on the label, and suggest a daily limit of 100 grams of total sugar. If Canada adopts the proposed 100 grams of sugar a day as a Daily Value for total sugar, this means we need to take a careful look at added sugar.
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 proposed 100 gram sugar limit:
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. If Canada adopts the 100 gram limit for total sugar, this leaves room for 25 grams of added sugar (6 teaspoons or approximately 5% of total energy), within the WHO free sugar guideline.
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 processed cereals, a pastry for a snack, a soft drink with dinner, and a variety of other processed foods, things could really add up!
How Can I Reduce My Sugar Intake?
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:
by Nicole Spencer, MEd, RD
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
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