Skip to main content

Various nutritional information labels are shown in this May 17, 2007 photo. Canada’s nutritional fact labels are set for an overhaul.LARRY CROWE/The Canadian Press

Nutrition facts panels in Canada are getting a makeover, with changes to serving sizes and a streamlined definition of sugar designed to help consumers cut through the complexity of current labels.

Despite an earlier proposal, the nutrition labels Health Minister Rona Ambrose unveiled on Friday will not have a line spelling out exactly how many grams of sugar have been added to a particular product. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, on the other hand, is pushing for a mandatory "added sugars" line on food labels south of the border.

Ms. Ambrose said one of the most significant changes will be the introduction of a "per cent daily value" for sugar, which is supposed to help people determine whether a particular food serving has a lot of, or a little, sugar. The bottom of each nutrition panel will tell consumers that a daily value of 5 per cent or less is a small amount, while 15 per cent or more is large.

The per-cent daily value will be based on a total of 100 grams of sugar. It will not distinguish between natural sugars in fruit and dairy products, and so-called "free" sugars in fruit juice, soft drinks or sweetened cereals and yogurts.

Experts like Yoni Freedhoff, assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, say that is a serious misstep because research shows "free" sugars, which include sugar added to foods, as well as honey, syrups, and fruit juice, are linked to health problems, while fruits, yogurt and other natural sources of sugar are important elements of healthy diets.

"The evidence points to added sugars having unique risks to human health," Dr. Freedhoff said.

Sugar has been one of the most controversial aspects of the government's overhaul of nutrition labels. Several large studies have linked moderate and high sugar intake to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other serious health problems. Mounting public concern prompted the government to overhaul the way sugar is presented on Canadian nutrition facts panels.

The federal government's changes will also create more standardized serving sizes for similar food items, making it easier for consumers to compare in the grocery store aisle. The mandated serving sizes are also intended to reflect more accurately how much people eat. For instance, the serving size for a loaf of bread will be two slices, not one.