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Canadians eat a lot of sugar. Or do we?

A new report released Wednesday by Statistics Canada has, for the first time, offered a comprehensive snapshot of how much sugar Canadians consume each day. On average, people across the country down the equivalent of 26 teaspoons of sugar a day, which accounts for about 21 per cent of all calories consumed.

While that includes sugar from fruit, milk and other natural sources, Statistics Canada reported that 35 per cent of all sugar consumed comes from products sweetened by the manufacturer, such as pop, fruit juice and candy.

Added sugar raises concern for dietitians and other health experts, because whereas natural sources of sugar provide other important nutrients and vitamins, items such as pop and candy are "empty calories" that can contribute to weight gain and obesity.

The top sources of sugar consumed by Canadians include milk, fruit, pop, candy, fruit juice and vegetables, according to the report.

But for all the information it provides, the report also exposes problems in understanding how much sugar is coming from natural or artificial sources, as well as a lack of consensus on how much is too much.

The report was compiled using data from the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey, which asked more than 35,100 people about everything they had consumed in the previous 24 hours.

Researchers were unable to distinguish between calories derived from natural and non-natural sources of sugar, a significant flaw that hampers the ability to assess accurately whether Canadians are consuming too much sugar from unhealthy sources.

Researchers used the foods and beverages reported by survey participants to simply estimate the amounts and types of sugar they were consuming from natural and artificial sources.

From their estimates, they concluded that more than one-third of sugar consumed by Canadians comes from pop, desserts, cereal and similar products containing added sugar. Consumption of products containing added sugar accounted for 17 per cent of sugar consumption among those aged 1 to 3, but rose to more than 40 per cent among those aged 14 to 18, with teenage boys getting nearly half of their sugar from artificial sources. Among seniors, consumption of products with added sugar decreased to 25 per cent of total sugar intake.

Men consumed more sugar from those food categories than women, regardless of age, the report said.

However, researchers were unable to say how many calories the average Canadian consumes in products that have had sugar added.

Another significant issue is that no clear guidelines exist for the right amount of sugar consumption. Health Canada has no maximum targets or guidelines advising Canadians how much of their diet should come from food with added sugar.

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, an influential, independent U.S. organization that advises governments on health policy, says added sugars should account for no more than 25 per cent of a person's daily calories. But the World Health Organization states that the number should be much lower, at 10 per cent.

Rosie Schwartz, a Toronto-based dietitian, author and advocate on a variety of nutrition issues, says the lack of consensus or guidance is one of the factors creating confusion among consumers about how much sugar is healthy. Many people don't know what the daily limit should be, or that many foods that seem healthy, such as fruit juice or flavoured yogurt, could contain added sugar.

Compounding these problems is the fact nutrition labels often make it challenging to tell whether a product contains added sugar, she said.

"That can make it very difficult for people," Ms. Schwartz said. "I would like to see more clear labelling."

The Canadian Sugar Institute, an industry group, said the results of the Statistics Canada report demonstrate that Canadians are not consuming unhealthy amounts of sugar and will help "dispel considerable misinformation regarding Canadian consumption patterns."

But Ms. Schwartz said that while the report doesn't provide all the answers about sugar intake in Canada, it does highlight the fact that many people are consuming excessive amounts.

For instance, pop accounted for 14 per cent of total sugar intake, candy for 10 per cent and fruit juice for 9 per cent among those aged 9 to 18. Milk made up 14 per cent of calories and fruit 10.6 per cent.

Among adults, pop accounted for 13 per cent of sugar intake, milk 10 per cent, fruit juice 7.6 per cent and candy 5 per cent.

"I think that we need to reduce… sugar consumption," Ms. Schwartz said. "Too much sugar does have health consequences."

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