A researcher involved with an eye-opening new study on the presence of added sugar in tens of thousands of food products, including many marketed as 'healthy,' says industry is a force to be reckoned with as new regulations are developed.
"They have a lot of money. They have a very loud voice. They are able to hire lobbyists to fight for their best interests," Erin Hobin of Public Health Ontario told Alberta@Noon on Friday.
"We need to be very conscious of the fact that they are very prevalent in our everyday lives, whether it is through marketing or product placement and things like that."
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Hobin was part of a study released this week that looked at more than 40,000 packaged food products.
Two-thirds of those products had added sugar, as did 79 per cent of juices, 74 per cent of yogurts, 48 per cent of baby foods, 86 per cent of breakfast cereals and a whopping 99 per cent of snack or granola bars.
Hobin said she was surprised by some of those numbers.
"Some of the foods that are often marketed as healthy ... also frequently showed added sugar in their ingredients list."
Added sugar, also called "free sugars," refers to sugar — or ingredients that function as sugar, like fruit juice concentrates and high fructose corn syrup — that is added during food processing. These contrast with intrinsic sugars which are naturally occurring.
Hobin said that can be a big problem.
- CMAJ Added sugar in the packaged foods and beverages available at a major Canadian retailer in 2015: a descriptive analysis
- WHO Guideline: Sugars intake for adults and children
"Excess sugar is associated with a variety of health problems," she explained.
"There are many studies associating excess sugar intake to heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, high blood cholesterol levels, cancer and [tooth decay]."
Despite this, Hobin said Health Canada has taken a different approach to labelling compared to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"Canada doesn't have guidelines for total sugars or a reference daily intake for total sugars," Hobin said.
She says the WHO recently came out with guidelines for the amount of free sugars that should be consumed, and the FDA has said it will add separate free sugars from naturally occurring ones in its nutrition facts table.
Health Canada, however, will only require reporting of total sugars in changes that will be implemented over the next five years.
Hobin said that's unfortunate.
"It's a step in the right direction, ... but from a public health perspective, it could possibly be a missed opportunity," she said.
"It's going to be difficult for consumers to compare the amount of free sugars when our percentage daily value is referring to total sugars."
Some jurisdictions are taking a different route to managing sugar intake.
Philadelphia and Mexico are taxing sugar-sweetened beverages, she said.
"The impacts of this tax are just now being published, but the results do seem promising."
But labelling and taxation are only a couple of paths to healthier living.
"Our safest bet is to try and shift as much as possible from eating processed and packaged foods to eating whole fruits and vegetables and other whole foods," Hobin said.
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With files from Alberta@Noon