Caramel. Dextrose. Glucose-fructose. Corn syrup. Fruit concentrate.
Sugar goes by many names. If you read the ingredient labels of some of the most mundane foods in your home, you'll probably be surprised to find that sugar continually pops up in surprising places – and in unexpected amounts. Pasta sauce, packaged bread, yogurt and cereal: All of these products can be hidden sources of sugar, and it poses a risk to our health. The concerns over sugar prompted the World Health Organization last week to propose that people should ideally limit the number of added sugars they consume in a day to less than 5 per cent of their total calories. That would be six teaspoons, or 25 grams, for an adult with an average body mass index.
Guess how easy it is to blow past that amount? Have a 100-gram serving of blueberry Activia yogurt (11 grams of sugar) and a cup of Ragu Old World Style Original tomato sauce (16 grams of sugar), and you're there.
"When you start adding these things up over the day, it makes a difference," said Katie Jessop, a registered dietitian with the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. "It's very difficult to get away from those things."
As a health reporter focusing on the food industry, I try to steer clear of the pre-made and stick to home-cooked meals as often as possible. But these are lofty ideals, even for someone who has memorized the nutrition facts of many items in the grocery store.
A lot of us are in a hurry and don't have the time to make everything from scratch. That's why I've often made instant oatmeal this winter. The only preparation required is boiling some water. I knew that it has more sugar than I should probably be having for what is purported to be a nutritious meal, but I didn't want to know the exact amount (and add yet another food to my ever-growing roster of products to avoid). For the purposes of this story, however, I decided to face the facts. And now I know that when I'm consuming one package of instant oatmeal, I'm also eating nearly four teaspoons of sugar.
Health Canada doesn't have sugar-consumption guidelines for how much is a safe amount of sugar to eat in a day. Regardless, four teaspoons at breakfast is probably too much.
A growing number of health advocates and organizations have been calling on government to create sugar-consumption guidelines as a way of dealing with the problem. While that would be a good first step toward increasing public awareness, it probably wouldn't result in a marked change in how much sugar we eat. The food industry would probably continue to add sugar to products – it's appealing to our taste buds and that is what sells. Bringing down consumption rates will also need to rely on changes such as reducing the amount of marketing of sugary foods to children and even how much industry is allowed to add into food, said Manuel Arango, director of health policy at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. He also cited taxation of sugary beverages as a potential policy change.
But until that happens, what are we supposed to eat, considering that many of us are starved for time?
The people who are able to make healthy meals from scratch consistently have the time, energy and money to do so, said Dr. Arya Sharma, professor and chair in obesity research and management at the University of Alberta. For many people, it's often too much, he said.
"The ingredients have to be shopped … people have to plan, and that takes a lot of time," Sharma said. "If you're just trying to eat healthy and be active, you're already talking about two to three hours per day. Yes, you could make it a priority, but that means you're going to have to give up doing other stuff. If that includes making the money to pay your bills … [that's a] problem."
To Sharma, sugar is just the latest fad ingredient to be put on the nutritional hit list. Too much of it can lead to long-term problems, such as obesity and cardiovascular disease, according to a study published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But he disagrees with the one-ingredient approach. That's because every few years, a new ingredient gets put under the microscope at the sacrifice of others. Manufacturers may well lower the amount of sugar in some products in response to consumer pressure, but they may add more fat or salt to compensate for the taste.
What Sharma sees as the real problem is today's culture of eating, which involves inhaling food in the car or hunched over at our desks. We are not taking the time for enjoyable meals.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Unless so-called convenience foods are reformulated into much healthier versions of themselves, people are faced with the choice of spending more money and time on healthy, made-from-scratch meals and shifting their thinking about the long-term values of healthy eating. And that will require more of us to acquire the cooking skills and the knowledge about how to apply that in our daily lives.
"People make decisions around cost, taste and convenience. That is really the question," Sharma said.
SUGAR, BY THE NUMBERS
26 teaspoons: the amount of sugar Canadians consume daily, on average. This includes sugar found naturally in things like fruit and milk, and sugar added to beverages and food.
35 per cent: the amount of added sugars that account for the total daily sugar intake of Canadians. That percentage peaks at 46 per cent for teen boys.
41 teaspoons: the amount of sugar boys age 14-18 consume daily, the highest amount of any age group.
14.3 per cent: the amount that soft drinks account for in terms of the total daily sugar intake of Canadians.
A 591-millilitre serving of Coca-Cola has 70 grams of sugar, or nearly 18 teaspoons.
A 450-millilitre serving of Minute Maid orange juice has 45 grams of sugar, or nearly 12 teaspoons.
A half-cup of Ragu Old World Style Original pasta sauce has eight grams, or two teaspoons.
A 100-gram serving of Activia blueberry yogurt has 11 grams, or nearly three teaspoons, of sugar.