Health·In Depth

10 things to know about sugar

We sprinkle it into drinks, sing about it, and even use it as a term of endearment — but how much do we really know about sugar?
Sure, sugar is sweet - but there are a few other things you should know about the substance. (iStock)

We sprinkle it into drinks, sing about it, and even use it as a term of endearment — but how much do we really know about sugar?

Here are 10 insights into the sweet and seemingly ubiquitous substance.

1. Sweet by nature

Almost all plants contain sucrose, but few are commercially viable sources of the substance. Sugarcane and sugar beets are special because they have a high enough concentration of sucrose to harvest.

How many teaspoons of sugar in that?

The sucrose molecule is identical regardless of whether the sugar is made from cane or beets, and it has the same number of calories: 14 per teaspoon.

CBC News researched the sugar content in some common foods and drinks, and determined the equivalent number of teaspoons of sugar in each. See the chart. 

Sugarcane from the East Indies was the first sugar crop to be cultivated. It doesn’t have a very long shelf life, so it must be refined before it can decompose.

Sugar beets were developed as a crop in 19th-century Europe. Their sugar is sturdy enough to be stored and is normally processed into white sugar in one stage.

In Canada, the sugar industry primarily refines raw cane sugar, but also refines sugar beets. Canada's first known sugar refinery was established in Halifax in 1817.

Today, there are cane sugar refineries in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. There is also one sugar beet plant in Taber, Alta.

2. We’re eating less sugar that is 100 per cent sucrose

Canadians are consuming less natural sugar than they were a few decades ago, according to figures released by Statistics Canada in 2010.

This is partly because the food and beverage industry is relying less on sucrose and more on high-fructose corn syrup.

One thing that sets natural or table sugar apart is that it is 100 per cent sucrose and does not contain reactive carbonyls, which are highly reactive compounds associated with the "unbound" fructose and glucose molecules present in human-made sugars. 

The fructose and glucose components in natural sugar are "bound" and chemically stable. 

3. The jury is out on high-fructose corn syrup

Several researchers suggest high-fructose corn syrup, which does not occur in nature, may be linked to certain health risks, including the onset of diabetes, hypertension and liver disease. The most common form of the syrup contains 45 per cent glucose and 55 per cent fructose.

The food industry disputes such studies, and some experts — including the Center for Science in the Public Interest — agree that more research is needed on the possible risks of high-fructose corn syrup.

What is clear is that the public is taking in much more of the manufactured sweetener.

In the U.S., reported consumption of high-fructose corn syrup increased 1,000 per cent over two decades, according to a 2004 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 

4. Canadians consume about 26 teaspoons of sugar per day 

Canadians get about 21 per cent of their daily calories from sugar, according to a 2011 Statistics Canada report on the sugar consumption of Canadians of all ages.

The report, which didn't distinguish between naturally occurring and added sugars, noted that on average Canadians consume 110 grams (26 teaspoons) of sugar per day — an amount considered moderate by at least one dietitian.

While 31 per cent of Canadians' daily sugar comes from fruit and vegetables, a higher percentage ― 35 per cent ― comes from the "other" foods category, including drinks and candy, that are high in added sugars.

5. Sources of sugar intake vary by age group

When the data from 35,000 respondents was broken down by age, however, the daily intake varied among Canadians.  Teenage boys took in about 41 teaspoons of sugar per day, while women aged 71 and over consumed 20 teaspoons per day.

This 2011 data was the first of its kind in Canada, and Statistics Canada plans to repeat the study it in 2015. 

6. Diabetics consume more sugar than recommended

Although people with diabetes take in significantly less sugar than their non-diabetic counterparts, their average consumption generally exceeds the recommended level, according to the aforementioned 2011 Statistics Canada study.

The 21st-century epidemic

The International Diabetes Federation calls diabetes the epidemic of the 21st century. 

The federation expects that by 2025, the number of people living with diabetes will hit 380 million — if nothing is done. Click here to explore the major effects of the disease in an interactive feature.

Or read an in-depth overview of the disease.

There are three main types of diabetes, but nine out of 10 Canadians with diabetes have Type 2, which is usually controlled through diet.

People with diabetes are generally advised to limit sugar consumption to 10 per cent of daily calories, but those surveyed took in an average of 73.4 grams of sugar per day — which is roughly 17 per cent of daily intake.

Diabetes interferes with the body's ability to produce or properly use insulin, a hormone that is essential for the proper use of the energy in our food. If your body is not producing or properly using insulin, you will have too much — or too little — glucose in your system.

7. Carbohydrates affect blood sugar

Suzanne Danner, a naturopathic doctor in Winnipeg, warns that simple carbohydrate foods, like white rice and noodles, raise blood sugar very quickly. The body releases insulin to get blood sugar down, and if that cycle happens too often some people develop insulin resistance — a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes doesn't develop overnight, but having high amounts of sugar in the diet is a risk factor that Canadians can avoid by taking charge of their diet, Danner said.

One ways to keep track of your carbohydrate consumption and how it affects your blood level is to check how foods are ranked in the glycemic index (GI). Foods that are digested slowly have a lower GI — 55 or less — and are healthier choices because blood sugar rises slowly and falls gently over a longer period of time.

On the flip side, high GI foods — 70 or more — are quickly digested, and can cause your blood sugar to spike and drop.

8. Boys are most at risk of obesity from consuming sugary drinks

Boys who drink pop and other sweetened beverages are at higher risk of obesity, according to the recent Canadian Community Health Survey.

Boys aged six to 11 years who drank the most sweetened drinks, about 553 grams a day of soft drinks, had about double the risk of being overweight and obese compared with their peers, after taking factors like household income into account, the researchers said.

Although Canadian intakes haven't reached U.S. levels, sugary drink consumption is on the rise, said nutrition professor Susan Whiting of the University of Saskatchewan.

9. There are a few sugary items you should avoid as a rule

Young boys aren't the only ones who enjoy soft drinks, but they should be indulgences rather than a regular habit. Next time you’re navigating the grocery store or cafeteria, you may want to steer clear of the following items.

  • Soft drinks: Soft drinks have been dubbed "liquid candy" for a reason. They are the biggest source of sugar in the average diet. Same goes for many frozen flavoured drinks. An extra-large Slurpee, for instance, contains up to 39 teaspoons of sugar.
  • Fruit "drinks," "beverages," "ades," and "cocktails": These beverages are essentially non-carbonated soft drinks. Many contain only five to 10 per cent juice.
  • Most sweet baked goods: Limit candy, cookies, cakes, pies, doughnuts, granola bars, pastries, and other sweet baked goods. And note that fat-free cakes, cookies, and ice cream may have as much added sugar as their fatty counterparts and they're often high in calories. "Fat-free" on the package doesn't necessarily mean low calorie.
  • Sugary cereals: Look for breakfast cereals that have no more than eight grams of sugar per serving.

Canada's Food Guide also has compiled a list of foods to limit, as well as a list of healthier alternatives.

10. 'Unsweetened' can only mean one thing

When it comes to nutrient content claims, not all information is created equal. Canada's Food and Drug Regulations have outlined certain terms and wording that savvy consumers can use to evaluate claims about sugar content.

Permitted "sugars" claims include the following:


 Sugar-related claims


Sugar-free: free of sugar, no sugar, 0 sugar, zero sugar, without sugar, contains no sugar, sugarlessContains < 0.5 g sugars per reference amount and "free of energy" (< 5 cal per reference amount).
Reduced in sugar: reduced sugar, sugar-reduced, less sugar, lower sugar, lower in sugarCompared to a similar reference food, contains > 25% less sugars and > 5 g less sugars/reference amount.
Lower in sugar: less sugar, lower sugarCompared to a reference food of the same food group, contains > 25% less sugars and > 5 g less sugars/reference amount.
No added sugar: no sugar added, without added sugarContains no added sugars, no ingredients containing added sugars or ingredients that contain sugars that substitute for added sugars.
 UnsweetenedMeets requirements for "no added sugar" and contains no sweeteners.