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Is sugar a health food?

The answer might seem obvious. With more research pointing to a link between sugary foods and drinks and chronic problems, including weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, even some types of cancer, more health experts are calling sugar the tobacco of the 21st century.

But according to Health Check, the Heart and Stroke Foundation's nutrition-rating program, fruit snacks that are virtually all sugar are good enough to receive its official seal of approval.

Take, for instance, a strawberry fruit bar sold by SunRype. Each bar contains 29 grams, or about seven teaspoons, of sugar. That means the vast majority of the 120 calories in each bar comes directly from sugar. Despite this, the bars are listed as an approved product under the Health Check program. SunRype's mixed-berry bites are fruit snacks that contain 23 grams of sugar, or about 51/2 teaspoons, a serving.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of the Bariatric Institute in Ottawa and a well-known nutrition advocate who blogs about questionable food-marketing tactics, says this is a perfect example of the major flaws in the Health Check program.

"I tell people that you simply cannot trust the Health Check to guide you to healthy choices," Freedhoff said. "The point of the program and the point of the Heart and Stroke Foundation is to help people, but all it does is misinform people and, in this particular case, misinform Canadian parents."

The Health Check program uses a team of dietitians to analyze food products and evaluate them based on a set of nutrition criteria.

This is not the first time the Health Check program has come under fire. Last fall, several doctors, including Freedhoff, criticized Health Check for giving its seal of approval to grilled burgers sold at Harvey's fast-food restaurants even though they contain a high amount of salt. A Health Check-approved veggie burger, for instance, has 930 milligrams of sodium. Nutrition guidelines state that the average Canadian adult should consume 1,500 milligrams of salt in an entire day.

Although the nutrition criteria used by Health Check dietitians have been updated in recent years to promote lower-sodium products, for instance, many nutrition experts say much more work needs to be done.

Critics also highlight problems with the way Health Check is set up. Companies pay the program to get involved, which creates inherent biases and conflicts of interest, according to Freedhoff.

Part of the problem with sugary snacks is that Health Canada has no set guidelines for sugar consumption, Freedhoff said. Without that guidance, consumers simply may not know which products contain too much sugar.

Terry Dean, Health Check's director of business development, regulatory affairs and licensing agreements, said the Heart and Stroke Foundation is planning to launch a comprehensive review of sugar to better understand consumption guidelines and how to steer people in a healthier direction.

He added that while Canadians should eat whole foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, it's also important to guide people toward healthier processed foods. The Health Check program will continue to evolve as nutrition guidance changes, he said.