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Added sugar found in two-thirds of packaged foods

Shopping cart in grocery aisle.
Photo: bugphai/iStock/Thinkstock

There are the obvious offenders— candy, soft drinks and baked goods. But what about that granola bar or that container of yogurt?

According to a Waterloo study, added sugar is found in two-thirds of all packaged foods, including many products marketed as healthy alternatives. Half of all baby foods contain added sugar and often in alarming amounts. The average baby food with added sugar contains four teaspoons, or the equivalent of four cubes.

“It’s more difficult to avoid sugar than you think,” said David Hammond, a professor in the School of Public Health and Health Systems who analyzed 40,000 packaged foods offered by a major Canadian grocery chain. “In many cases, sugar is found in products you wouldn’t suspect and under names you wouldn’t recognize.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends limiting consumption of added sugars to a maximum of 10 per cent of daily calories.  On average, Canadians consume around 11 to 13 per cent— not including sugars added from naturally derived sources like fruit juice and honey.

“Consumers have several misunderstandings about sugars and sugar processing,” said Hammond. “Differences in labelling regulations also add to the confusion.”

The sugar content in beverages is particularly high, including for juices and flavoured dairy products.

“There is a public perception that sugar content from fruit juice is less of a health risk than that of soft-drinks, which is not true,” said Hammond. “It is processed the same way in our bodies and labels should reflect that.”

The United States will soon list the amount of added sugar on food labels; Health Canada is also redesigning nutrition labels, but decided against providing added sugar levels on pre-packaged foods.

“Most people want to know how much added sugar is in their foods— the decision not to list added sugars is a missed opportunity,” said Hammond. “That’s a concern for public health.”

The sour side of sugar

High intake of added sugar is linked with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. In Canada alone, 3.5 million people live with Type II diabetes and 5.3 million adults struggle with obesity. Cancer continues to remain the leading cause of death.

“There is an immediate need to reduce excess sugar intake in our diet and the best place is to start is to reduce our liquid calories. We need to go back to eating our fruit instead of sucking it through a straw,” said Hammond.