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Ceone Fournier, centre, and her kids Owen, 11, left to right, Maisy, 6, and Claire, 9, have a snack in their home in Spruce Grove, Alta., on July 24. Fournier was involved in the Health Canada consultations on the proposed labeling modernization. (AMBER BRACKEN/The Globe and Mail)
Ceone Fournier, centre, and her kids Owen, 11, left to right, Maisy, 6, and Claire, 9, have a snack in their home in Spruce Grove, Alta., on July 24. Fournier was involved in the Health Canada consultations on the proposed labeling modernization. (AMBER BRACKEN/The Globe and Mail)

The 100-gram solution Add to ...

One researcher calls it "kooky." Another says it will make Canada a "laughing stock."

After years of remaining largely silent on the controversial carbohydrate, Ottawa has announced plans to arm Canadians with a guideline on daily sugar consumption. But some experts hesitate to applaud the recent move by Health Minister Rona Ambrose and her department, saying it's based on faulty logic and doesn't go nearly far enough.

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Unlike many countries and leading health organizations, Canada has never set a daily value for sugar - despite increasing evidence linking it to myriad health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity, and despite studies showing the latter alone costs the economy $4.6-billion to $7.1-billion annually.

Successive governments, Liberal and Conservative alike, didn't act until last month when Ms. Ambrose proposed a daily maximum intake: 100 grams total, whether the sugar occurs naturally or has been added by a manufacturer.

By choosing not to make the distinction, the minister has raised the hackles of those who argue that added sugar is the chief culprit.

'Sugar is sugar'

The debate on sugar has been raging for decades. Some experts today see it as the new tobacco while others argue it's unfairly getting a bad rap. Even among those who agree high sugar consumption is linked to health problems, there's disagreement over whether to target the sweet stuff in all its forms or just limit added sugars, leaving naturally occurring ones alone.

Still, others in the developed world, including Australia and the European Union, years ago established daily intakes for sugar. So why has Ottawa taken so long to do the same?

Health ministers in Liberal cabinets of the past say they don't recall the issue of a daily guideline crossing their desks, while spokespeople for Ms. Ambrose's Conservative predecessors, Tony Clement and Leona Aglukkaq, didn't directly address the Globe's questions, or referred the newspaper to the incumbent's office.

Health Canada explains the timing of the announcement this way: The science around sugar has evolved, Canadians say they want a daily value, and the department is currently revamping decade-old regulations governing all food labelling so the opportunity arose.

But those who have been watching closely also know sugar was dealt several blows ahead of Ms. Ambrose's July 14 press conference.

Five months earlier, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that people who get 25 per cent or more of their daily calories from added sugar are three times more likely to die of heart disease. A chorus of prominent health organizations soon urged Ottawa to set guidelines.

Then in March, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a draft recommendation that people limit their consumption of so-called free sugars - a category that includes added sugars as well as honey, syrup, fruit juices and fruit concentrates - to between 5 and 10 per cent of their daily calories. That amounts to roughly 25 to 50 grams based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Ms. Ambrose told The Globe in an interview she was "very struck" by the WHO proposal and asked her department what Canada currently recommends.

Upon learning there was no daily figure, she tasked a team of about 15 scientists with developing one. After some debate, they landed on 100 grams.

"People have to reduce their consumption of sugar overall, period," she says.

"That's why we're treating sugar as sugar, whether it's from an apple or it's from a yogurt or it's from a cookie."

What Ottawa won't do, at least not as of right now, is set a specific figure for added or free sugar, as the WHO and American Heart Foundation have done and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada hints it will do later this year.

"I have a lot of respect for Health Canada, and they've been leaders in many areas," says Dr. Joanne Lupton, a member of the U.S. Institute of Medicine who chaired the committee that established the institute's most recent upper limit for added sugar. "But I just find this to be an outlier position."

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