Ask any Canadian how much sugar they consume in a day and in most cases the response will be a far-off, contemplative stare.
Outdated, confusing nutrition facts panels on Canadian food packages are hard to read, even more difficult to understand and do little to effectively communicate how much sugar (or other nutrients) Canadians are getting each day. Which is a problem, given that mounting evidence shows sweetened food and drinks contribute to heart disease, even among people in normal weight ranges.
Health Canada agrees the labels need an overhaul, so it is planning some important changes to improve the way nutritional information is presented.
But some of the proposed changes regarding sugar may end up putting Canada at odds with new guidelines from the World Health Organization on maximum sugar intake – and could undermine efforts to reduce consumption in Canada.
The WHO, concerned about rising levels of obesity, adopted new guidelines this month that urge people to limit their daily intake of so-called "free" sugars to less than 10 per cent of their daily calories. "Free" sugars are those added to foods or drinks, as well as those naturally present in fruit juices, syrups, concentrates and honey (which have little nutritional value).
Ideally, free sugars would make up less than 5 per cent of total daily calories, or about six teaspoons (25 grams) a day for an adult with a normal body mass index, the organization says.
The guideline is based on the fact that "free" sugars can contribute to ill health.
Health Canada's proposed changes to the nutrition facts panel would, for the first time, tell Canadians how much added sugar a product contains. It's a good move that could help Canadians to more easily tell when products are loaded up with added sugar.
But there is a major problem with the proposal: The federal government wants to base the "per cent daily value" of sugar – how much you'd get from a serving of a particular product – on a daily total of 100 grams. The per cent daily value wouldn't differentiate between naturally occurring sugars, found in nutritious foods such as fruit, or sugar added by manufacturers, which has been linked to long-term health problems.
Under that plan, the nutrition facts panel would tell you that a can of pop amounts to 42 per cent of the daily value for sugar. Less than half – it doesn't sound so bad. How could anyone worry about the health implications of drinking pop that amounts to less than half of a day's worth of sugar?
Except it is a problem. That can of pop has more than 10 teaspoons of sugar in it. According to the WHO, which based its sugar consumption guidelines on scientific evidence, 42 grams of added sugar far exceeds the 25 gram recommended limit the average adult should be consuming in a day – let alone a child or teen.
Failing to separate naturally occurring and added sugars when doing per cent daily value calculations could also wrongly mislead consumers into counting the sugar from fruits, vegetables and dairy as part of their recommended daily total.
A responsible public-health plan should make it clear that an apple is good for you while a beverage that contains nearly a dozen teaspoons of sugar is not. If Health Canada's current plan goes forward, it's fair to say that consumers could be left with the impression that soft drinks and other products void of any nutritional benefits actually don't contain that much sugar and aren't so bad.
When the WHO policy was first floated last year, news stories screamed that drinking a can of pop would put Canadians over their daily limit. It was as if having a health organization spell out just how much sugar is added to sweetened beverages and how unhealthy that is in the long run was some kind of insult. In reality, the WHO guidelines finally bring a dose of reality to our sugar consumption habits by making it clear that guzzling a beverage with more than 10 teaspoons of sugar shouldn't be considered normal or healthy.
There are many problems with the current nutrition facts panel and the move to improve it is certainly a welcome development. And given that more research is revealing just how dangerous added sugar can be to our long-term health, any attempt to help Canadians figure out just how much they are consuming is important and long overdue.
But the current proposal falls short of what Canadians need: nutrition labels that make it clear any product with six or more teaspoons of sugar is too sweet and could put their long-term health at risk. No one is calling for a nanny state, but how about arming consumers with the information they need to make informed choices – including giving them nutrition labels that clearly state when items they are considering feeding themselves, or their children, contain a week's worth of sugar?
If the food and beverage industries believe so strongly in the value of their products, why would they object to making it even easier for Canadians to understand what they contain?