It has been nearly 15 years since the nutrition label in Canada has been revamped.
A lot has changed in the world of nutrition since then, particularly the evidence to limit our intake of free and added sugar.
But not all sugars are created equal when it comes to the health of Canadians and this should be reflected on our nutrition label.
Types of sugar
There are several ways to classify sugars according to where they come from and how they are consumed:
- Naturally-occurring sugars are sugars that are found in their natural and original source, like the sugar consumed as part of an apple or in a glass of milk. These sugars are obtained from sources that, for the most part, form part of a healthy, balanced diet.
- Free sugars are the sugars that have been removed from their natural source and are then consumed as is, or put back into foods and beverages, such as table sugar or fruit juice.
- Added sugars refer specifically to the free sugars and syrups that are added to foods and beverages.
- Total sugars that are on the current nutrition label is the amount of all the above combined.
Research on sugar and Health
In recent years, more evidence has emerged showing the adverse health effects associated with excess sugar intakes such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and dental caries. A number of health organization including the World Health Organization, the United States Dietary Guidelines Committee, the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada have all recommended limiting intakes of free or added sugars to a maximum of 5 to 10% of calories.
Added sugars labelling
Right now, only total sugars are on the nutrition label. Health Canada has proposed including a benchmark, or %Daily Value, on the label for total sugars to help consumers understand the amount. They are also proposing that food manufacturers will have to group all sugar-based ingredients together in the Ingredient List. However, these changes still don’t tell consumers how much sugar is added to the food they are eating.
Meanwhile, the United States has proposed including added sugars on their nutrition label along with a benchmark based on 10% of calories, which aligns with healthy intake guidelines.
Without listing the added (or free) sugar content on the nutrition label, it will be virtually impossible for Canadians to follow guidelines to limit added and free sugar intake to no more than 5% to 10% of calories. Without such labelling, it will be hard for consumers to know how much sugar is added to their food and to compare the amounts in different foods.
This year Canadians have elected a new federal government that has mandated the new Minister of Health to improve added sugars labelling. Let’s not lose this rare opportunity to update our Nutrition Facts table to ensure that Canadians can achieve the maximum public health benefits possible that are in line with the most recent scientific evidence.
In the absence of added and free sugars on the label, Canadian consumers can utilize apps such as One Sweet App, to track their free sugar consumption compared to World Health Organization recommendations.
Jodi Bernstein is a Registered Dietitian and has a Master’s in Public Health, specializing in community nutrition. She is currently a PhD Candidate in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto. Her thesis focuses on sugars in the Canadian food environment.
Most recently, Jodi has developed an algorithm to estimate the free sugars contents of Canadian food and beverages. Results have since been used to populate One Sweet App, a mobile app that allows users to track their free sugars intakes and compare this to guidelines from the World Health Organization.
Dr. Mary L’Abbé is the Earle W. McHenry Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, at the University of Toronto, where she leads a research group on Food and Nutrition Policy for Population Health. Dr. L’Abbé is an expert in public health nutrition, nutrition policy, and food and nutrition regulations, with a long career in in mineral nutrition research. Her research examines the nutritional quality of the Canadian food supply, food intake patterns, and consumer research on food choices related to obesity and chronic disease.
Dr. L’Abbé a member of several committees of the WHO including the Nutrition Guidance Expert Advisory Group on Diet and Health and the Global Coordinating Mechanism for NCDs; the former which recently released the WHO Guidelines on Sugars. Dr. L’Abbé was co-chair of the Canadian Trans Fat Task Force, led the Trans Fat Monitoring Program and served as Chair and vice-Chair of the Canadian Sodium Working Group. Before joining the University of Toronto, Dr. L’Abbe was Director, Bureau of Nutritional Sciences at Health Canada. Dr. L’Abbé holds a PhD in nutrition from McGill University and has authored over 180 peer-reviewed scientific publications, book chapters and government reports.