A new report from Statistics Canada indicates that one in every five calories that Canadians consume comes from sugar — whether naturally occurring as in milk or fruit, or added to foods and beverages like soft drinks and candy.
On average, the study, released Wednesday, found that Canadians consumed 110 grams of sugar a day, which works out to 26 teaspoons or 21 per cent of their daily calorie intake.
The information was collected as part of the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey, which had more than 34,000 respondents recall everything they'd had to eat or drink in the past 24 hours.
The Canadian study shows 31 per cent of sugar consumed was from vegetables and fruit, while 35 per cent came from the "other" foods category, which includes items like soft drinks and candy. And the sugars in these items, which is added rather than naturally occurring, has little or no nutritional value.
"Our main concern with sugar consumption is that when you're consuming foods high in sugar they're often replacing healthier choices in the diet and it's really important that most of your intake comes from healthy choices. Otherwise, you're not going to meet your nutrient requirements," said Janice Macdonald, director of communications for the Dietitians of Canada.
"If you're filling up on soft drinks and doughnuts and chocolate bars and things like that, then you're not going to be hungry for healthy foods."
The study showed sugar consumption was lowest among women aged 71 and over, at 20 teaspoons.
The highest sugar consumption was among teenage boys aged 14 to 18, at 41 teaspoons or 46 per cent.
"Their sugar intake is not coming from a food that is providing them with nutrients. ... They're growing and developing and those foods should be foods that are loaded with nutrients," Macdonald, who is also a dietitian, said in an interview from Victoria.
Carol Harrison, a registered dietitian in Toronto who runs a nutrition consulting business, pointed out that teenage girls weren't that far behind the boys, at 42 per cent.
Harrison suspects teens scored high because they may be reaching for empty-calorie items like pop and other sweetened beverages like lemonade, ice tea or fruit drinks, candy and chocolate during that after-school slump.
"I'd rather see a teenager fill up on a little more protein, like maybe have a larger piece of steak with dinner or throw in a hard-cooked egg with their breakfast cereal in the morning so that maybe they're not so likely to reach for those refined carbohydrate quick fixes. Their blood sugars are crashing because they're not maybe satisfying themselves at their meals and their snacks," she said.
The data show that “Canadians’ total sugars consumption is moderate and within the 45 to 65 per cent of energy that is recommended for carbohydrates,” Sandra Marsden, president of the Canadian Sugar Institute and a registered dietitian, said in a release. The report summarizes intakes of all sugars, which, along with starch and fibre, are carbohydrates. Whether naturally occurring or added, all sugars are the same to the body.
The U.S. Institute of Medicine recommends that no more than 25 per cent of total daily energy intake should come from added sugars. But the World Health Organization recommends a daily maximum of 10 per cent of calories from free sugars, in other words added sugar, syrups or honey. In a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, that works out to a daily maximum of 12 teaspoons or 48 grams of sugars.
It's not possible to assess where Canadians stand in relation to these thresholds, because the study reported daily intake of sugar by food group and top 10 sources, but did not distinguish between naturally occurring and added sugars.
The StatsCan study showed sugar consumption among diabetics was lower than for the rest of the population and derived to a greater extent from fruit and vegetables, milk and grains. But it was still above current recommendations for diabetics.
Macdonald said that the Dietitians of Canada recommends all Canadians, not just teenage boys, should focus on foods that come from the four food groups and that their beverage of choice be water, milk and small amounts of fruit juice.
Food labels can also help consumers realize the amount of sugar contained in foods.
"Manufacturers include all sugars included in a product in the nutrition box so consumers really have to look at the ingredients list too and see what's there for added sugars. It could say sugar, glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose and all of those would mean sugar," Macdonald explained.
Harrison advised buying foods that don't have labels at all, like vegetables and fruits. "Look at the ingredients list on labels as well because if sugar is the first ingredient then it's a choice you don't want to have often. It's going to be a treat."
In her book "Dietitians of Canada Cook!" (Robert Rose, 2011) author and dietitian Mary Sue Waisman suggests reducing sugar by a third in recipes such as cookies, muffins, squares and quick breads. Use extra cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves (just add a little, to taste). When shopping, look for canned fruits packed in their own juice instead of syrup.
Macdonald adds that when choosing juices, look for 100 per cent juices rather than beverages or cocktails and choose unsweetened juices.
— With files from Anne-Marie Tobin.