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There’s nothing free or healthy about ‘free sugar’


In the last 10,000 years, we have gone from hunters and gatherers to consumers of processed foods and beverages. One of the most dramatic changes to our eating habits is the increase in the consumption of sugar; free sugar, to be exact, the type that is freed from its original (plant) sources.

In the past 30 years, the rate of diabetes has tripled according to the Centre for Disease Control. By 2020, one in three Canadians will be living with diabetes or prediabetes. Every hour, 20 Canadians will be diagnosed with diabetes. We must stop debating whether there is a relationship between sugar and diabetes, like we did in the 1970s about tobacco and lung disease. Sugar is addictive and some experts would suggest it is toxic too. Take a look at this recent CBC The National segment with Dr. Danielle Martin on how to stop the rise of Type 2 diabetes.

So is the simple way of preventing diabetes to avoid sugar?

It would be if sugar wasn’t hidden so well in the foods we eat. It may surprise you to learn that 75 per cent of packaged foods now have added sugar. You’ll find sugar added in not only the obvious foods, such as soft drinks (including popular sports or “energy” drinks), but also ‘healthy foods’ such as yogurt and energy bars; even savoury foods like pasta sauce, bread, salad dressing and ketchup.

Quantity and quality of sugar play a role as well. First, our bodies are digesting more carbohydrates, or sugars, than we’ve ever seen before. And not all carbohydrate calories are equal.

The sugars we ingest today are not from natural sources, such as from fruit; instead, they come from processed and manufactured sugars and from sugar substitutes. Although all carbohydrates break down into sugar within our bodies, they do so at different rates and in different ways depending on the source. Our pancreas and liver can’t handle these man-made sugars as readily. We store this excess sugar in our liver. This can lead to fatty or ‘foie gras’ liver disease, which can be just as deadly as other liver conditions. So while you might look slim and healthy on the outside, it may be a different story inside your body.

The World Health Organization came out with ground-breaking recommendations this year which state that adults and children should reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10 per cent of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below 5 per cent or roughly 25 grams (six teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits such as reduced dental caries.

What can you do to help yourself, family and friends to avoid becoming sick from sugar?

  1. Get informed. There are a number of resources to read and watch. In addition to the videos above, try to catch a movie called Sugar Coated, which was supported by TELUS Fund. It will be screened in selected locations across Canada in the coming weeks.
  2. Download the One Sweet app on iTunes; it’s the first reputable sugar tracker powered by the first database in Canada to include the free sugar content in packaged foods. Dr. Mary L’Abbé, Professor and Chair of the University of Toronto, Department of Nutritional Sciences oversees the free sugar database and you can help build it by adding the foods you’re encountering in your daily life.
  3. Share this post with your friends, family and on Facebook or Twitter using @SugarCoatedDoc. You will make a difference by being an informed health consumer and educate those around you too. After all, changing eating habits begins with awareness.

More facts about sugar

  • Free sugar is defined as sugar extracted from natural plant sources
  • Sugar free usually means the product is sweetened with artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. Such chemicals, while void of sugar calories, do pose other health issues such as insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes)
  • North Americans consume an average of 66 pounds of added sugar each year
  • There are at least 61 names for added sugar on food labels
  • Liquid sugar, like that in soda and sports drinks, is the largest source of added sugar in the diet (36 per cent)
  • Drinking just one 12-ounce can of cola or comparable soda every day can increase your risk of dying from heart disease by almost one third