It’s in baby food, yogurt, pasta sauce, and other food stashed in your kitchen — added sugar is lurking in more than two-thirds of pre-made food on grocery store shelves, according to a new Canadian study.
Sixty-six per cent of packaged food contains added sugar, scientists out of Public Health Ontario and the University of Waterloo suggest. They figured this out after poring over the nutritional data from a Canadian grocery store chain of more than 40,000 commonly available food items.
“Added sugar is a bigger and bigger health problem in Canada. Right now, Canadian kids consume around 33 teaspoons of sugar*, so that’s about 33 cubes of sugar a day,” the study’s lead author, Dr. David Hammond, told Global News. Hammond is a University of Waterloo professor at the School of Public Health.
“The concern isn’t natural sugars or fruits or milk. The concern is the sugar that’s added to the food supply, and that’s something that’s a big contributor to obesity,” he said.
Skimming through nutritional information to come to their conclusions wasn’t easy, either. Right now, nutritional labels don’t separate added sugars from naturally occurring sugars.
Hammond and his team analyzed data and ingredients to decipher when, and how much, added sugar was thrown into the mix.
“We found that there are more than two dozen different ways that added sugar was labelled … it’s almost impossible for a consumer to figure out whether a product has added sugar. Most consumers don’t know names like maltodextrin, which is a common form of added sugar,” he explained.
Sugar is called anything from dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, glucose, fructose, to fruit juice concentrate, for example.
Obviously, added sugars were highest in food such as candy, baked goods and soda, but the researchers say Canadians would be surprised to know where else it’s lurking.
Sugar was also added to snack bars and yogurt, marketed as healthy options. Almost all infant formulas and baby food listed added sugar in their ingredients lists, too.
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A breakdown of their findings included:
- 66 per cent of packaged food products analyzed contained at least one added sugar in their ingredients list.
- Snacks and sweets: 12,534 products examined, 86 per cent listed at least one added sugar.
- Beverages: 3,161 beverages examined, 78.7 per cent listed added sugars.
- Yogurt: 1,003 products examined, 73.8 per cent listed added sugars.
- Infant formula and baby food products: 530 products examined, 47.7 per cent listed added sugars.
Keep in mind, in 2014 the World Health Organization dropped the gauntlet on consumers with its updated recommendations: sugar intake should be just five per cent of your total calories, half of what the global health agency had recommended years ago.
For an average woman who eats about 2,000 calories a day, that’s roughly 25 grams of sugar – less than half a can of pop, about two portions of yogurt or an entire Caramilk bar.
The Canadian Sugar Institute said the study has “a number of limitations.”
“The study only offers a description of what packaged foods are available in one major grocery store chain. It is not reflective of the amount of packaged goods actually purchased. In fact, only 58 per cent of the products analyzed in this study were actually sold during the study period,” a spokesperson said in an email to Global News.
“The study does not provide information on the wide range of food choices Canadians make beyond grocery stores, such as in local stores, restaurants and farmers’ markets, and is not reflective of the type and quantity of foods they actually consume,” the statement said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is trying to help consumers make savvy decisions — it’s making a separate category for added sugars in its revamped nutrition facts panel, for example.
Hammond said Health Canada isn’t doing the same and he calls this a “missed opportunity.”
Health Canada, for its part, is grouping added sugars in its updated nutrition facts panel. Instead of looking for all the names for sugar in an ingredients list, they’ll be rounded up together.
“This new measure will be a more transparent way of identifying sources of sugars added to the food, and how much they contribute to the total composition of the food compared to other ingredients,” a Health Canada spokesperson told Global News in an email.
The federal agency is giving the food industry five years to adhere to the revamped guidelines.
Excess sugar consumption is tied to a handful of health issues, according to Carol Dombrow, a registered dietitian with Heart & Stroke.
“We know that, first of all, excess sugar only provides calories. It’s not providing us any nutritional value. And we know excess sugar is a risk factor for heart disease, for stroke, for cancer, for diabetes, for obesity, for dental caries. There’s a lot of issues in terms of eating too much sugar,” she told Global News.
Dombrow said Canadians’ best bet is to read labels and keep an eye out for sugar content.
Even better, buy food without a label at all, said Dombrow.
“Spend the time. Use whole ingredients … cook more,” she said.
And if you’re worried about figuring out how much added sugar is in your packaged food, Dr. Mary L’Abbe, a University of Toronto scientist, built an app called One Sweet App. (Because of funding limitations, the app only exists for iPhone users right now.)
Simply download the app, scan the barcode of a product or type in part of its name and it’ll show you a breakdown of total sugars, separating naturally occurring sugars from added ones.
Hammond’s full findings were published Thursday morning in the journal CMAJ Open.