The federal government is proposing a recommended daily limit on the amount of sugar Canadians eat, as well as requiring food manufacturers to clearly state on nutrition labels the amount of sugar they have added to products.
The move comes amid rising obesity rates and months of mounting pressure on Health Canada from the medical community, health organizations and media to change the laws that govern what manufacturers tell consumers about the food they eat. It also follows a U.S. Food and Drug Administration overhaul of packaged foods labels last February, including an “added sugar” listing, updated serving sizes and more prominent calorie-count placement.
The proposed changes to nutrition and ingredient labels on packaged food, announced by Health Minister Rona Ambrose on Monday, also include suggested serving sizes that reflect what people actually eat, and making the calorie count more prominent. Ms. Ambrose said parents want better information about the kinds of food their children are eating in order to make healthier choices.
“They wanted, for example, more information about sugar,” she said at a news conference in Edmonton. “Especially when it comes to what people refer to as hidden sugars or added sugars in food. Especially when buying food for their kids.”
In recent months, The Globe and Mail documented the links between sugar and harmful health outcomes, and called on the federal government to set a recommended daily sugar limit.
Our reporting revealed the extent to which the food industry adds sugar to many products in various forms, the extent to which labelling requirements don’t sufficiently inform consumers about this practice and the broad range of health problems that stem from the amount of sugar in the daily diet of most Canadians.
In February, a study in JAMA Internal Medicine linked high sugar intake with heart disease deaths. Another recent study by Memorial University in St. John’s predicted one in five adults will be obese by 2019. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development was more pessimistic, saying 25 per cent of Canadians – including children – are already obese.
In March, the World Health Organization called on governments to recommend an added sugar limit of 10 per cent of daily caloric intake (and 5 per cent – 25 grams a day – for ideal health outcomes) – a call Canada resisted. In April, high-powered filmmakers released the obesity documentary Fed Up, accusing industry of engineering food to make consumers eat more than they need.
Monday’s recommendations from Health Canada – based on the results of roundtable and online consultations with consumers – set that limit at 100 grams, equivalent to a little more than three cans of Coke or two small containers of yogurt.
Nutrition labels would list the calories from sugar that is naturally present in the food, as well as added sugars, the stealth sweeteners that go by such names as fructose and evaporated cane juice. Importantly, Health Canada confirmed added sugars will include naturally occurring sugars isolated from a whole food and then concentrated – such as fruit juice concentrates – so that sugar is the primary component. As well, ingredients lists would group sugars together so consumers can tell where the sweeteners rank among other components.
Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity researcher and professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa, called the labelling proposals a “step forward,” but said the proposed recommended daily intake of 100 grams of sugar is too high. Ottawa’s recommended limit that no more than 20 per cent of calories come from sugar far exceeds the WHO’s 5- to 10-per-cent limit.
“Sugar is part of the holy trinity of salt-sugar-fat that food manufacturers use to make foods hyper-palatable, to make the ‘bet you can’t eat just one’ phenomenon’ physiologically real,” he said. “And so in that regard, putting aside any argument that sugar is toxic, sugar is awesome at getting us to eat too much. … For those reasons I’d like to see it down.” Dr. Freedhoff welcomed the move to standardize suggested serving size, so that consumers can compare sugar and fat content among different brands of yogurt or crackers, for example. But he said consumers should be told the calorie count of the entire package of chips, not just a handful.
“For many people, especially with processed foods, it’s not about the serving,” he said. “They’re going to eat either the whole box or half the box. They’re not going to do the math of 18 chips, but they would understand the math of, ‘this whole bag contains this many calories.’”