Sugar has been a part of the human diet for centuries but recently there has been a lot of media attention focused on sugar, particularly in relation to weight and health. Much of this information is not supported by science and is often misleading and incomplete. It can therefore be challenging for consumers to separate fact from fiction. This page answers five of the most frequently asked questions about sugars in relation to health. For answers to questions on additional topics below, below visit the respective sections:
1. Question: How much sugar do Canadians eat?
While many media headlines state that Canadian intakes of added sugars are increasing, trends in availability of added sugars suggest that consumption in Canada has been declining over the past two decades (1). Declining trends have also been seen in countries such as Australia (2) and the United States (3).
Data source: Statistics Canada, Table 32-10-0054-01, Food available in Canada. Adjusted for waste using updated USDA Loss-Adjusted Food Availability Documentation. Added sugars include refined sugar, maple sugar, honey, and sugars in soft drinks.
Note: Variability in sugars and syrups reflects substitution with high fructose corn syrup in soft drinks, and the total amount of sugars, syrups and soft drinks is an overestimate in some years. Soft drink data also includes non-caloric soft drinks (which do not contain sugars); therefore, sugars in soft drinks is an overestimate.
According to data from the 2015 Canadian Community Health Survey, adults consumed about 8.6% of their daily energy from added sugars, while children and adolescent consumed on average 10.3% of energy from added sugars (4).
Did You Know?
- "Added sugars" includes all sugars added to foods at home and by food manufacturers (e.g. table sugar, honey, maple syrup) and sugars in beverages (e.g. high fructose corn syrup).
- On average, added sugars account for approximately half of total sugars consumed.
- Added sugars consumption in Canada is about 1/3 less than US consumption when comparing dietary survey data from a similar time frame (1). This is mostly due to lower intakes of soft drinks.
1. Brisbois TD, Marsden SL, Anderson GH, Sievenpiper JL. Estimated intakes and sources of total and added sugars in the Canadian diet. Nutrients. 2014; 6(5):1899-912.
2. Brand-Miller J.C. & Barclay A.W. Declining consumption of added sugars and sugar-sweetened beverages in Australia: a challenge for obesity prevention. Am J Clin Nutr 2017 doi:10.3945/ajcn.116.145318
3. Powell ES, Smith-Taillie LP, Popkin BM. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(10):1543-1550.
4. Wang YF, Chiavaroli L, Roke K, DiAngelo C, Marsden S, Sievenpiper J: Canadian Adults with Moderate Intakes of Total Sugars have Greater Intakes of Fibre and Key Micronutrients: Results from the Canadian Community Health Survey 2015 Public Use Microdata File. Nutrients 2020, 12.
2. Question: Does sugar contribute to weight gain? Only when consumed as excess Calories, but not when Calories from sugars are replaced by other sources, such as starches or fat.
Weight gain and obesity are complex. There are many different risk factors for having obesity, including dietary habits, level of physical activity, gut (microflora) health, environmental factors, sleep patterns, stress, and genetics. You're at increased risk of becoming overweight or obese when the energy (Calories) you ingest from food is greater than the energy you use to perform normal bodily functions like breathing, digestion, pumping blood, reading, daily movement, and physical activity.
All sugars provide 4 Calories of energy per gram, which is the same as all starches and proteins. Fat provides 9 Calories of energy per gram; alcohol provides 7 Calories per gram; and fibre, 2 Calories per gram. Research suggests eating too many calories from all sources - sugars, starches, fats, proteins, alcohol - can contribute to obesity as the excess calories are stored as fat rather than being used for energy (5).
Adopting a healthy eating pattern, getting enough sleep, and incorporating physical activity into your daily routine can help maintain a healthy weight. A healthy eating pattern is one that has the right amount of Calories from a balanced ratio of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, as well as enough of the essential vitamins, minerals, fibre and other nutrients our bodies need.
3. Question: Are added sugars different than sugars from natural sources? No
Glucose, fructose, and sucrose are made naturally in all green plants through photosynthesis, a process that converts energy from sunlight into food energy in the form of sugars and starches.
Sucrose found in table sugar comes from sugar cane or sugar beets, and can be added to foods for various reasons beyond adding sweetness. This is the same sucrose that is found naturally in fruits and vegetables, along with the other simple sugars, glucose and fructose. Sucrose added to foods could be extracted from fruits such as bananas and mangoes. However, sugar cane and sugar beets are the most economical source because of their high sucrose concentration.
Fruits and vegetables also come packed with many important nutrients (e.g. vitamins, minerals, fibre) that our bodies need and benefit from, while a small amount of added sugar can improve the flavour of many nutritious foods like whole grains, breakfast cereals, or yogurts.
Whether it is naturally occurring (from fruits or vegetables) or added to foods, our bodies use sucrose as a carbohydrate energy source for the body. Any excess carbohydrate or sugars consumed is stored for future use as glycogen or fat.
For more information, visit: Sources of Sugar, or download the fact sheet: Uncover the Truth About Sugar - Sources of Sucrose
4. Question: Sugar causes chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease
Systematic reviews and meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials, which provide the best available scientific evidence, do not support a causal relationship between sugars and chronic diseases beyond their contribution to calorie intake (6).
Consuming excess Calories from all sources, including sugars, fats, other carbohydrates, protein, and alcohol, can increase your risk of developing obesity, which is a risk factor for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and several types of cancer (7). Your level of daily physical activity along with other lifestyle and genetic factors also influence your risk for developing obesity.
Eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and managing blood pressure can help reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes (8). On the other hand, foods and beverages higher in sugars and fats can be key sources of excess calories. Individuals who want to reduce total calories would benefit from reducing the frequency of intake or portions of these foods, and increasing consumption of nutrient-dense whole foods like fruits and vegetables. More high-quality research is needed to determine whether sugars contribute to chronic disease beyond its contribution to Calories.
6. Khan TA, Sievenpiper JL. Controversies about sugars: results from systematic reviews and meta-analyses on obesity, cardiometabolic disease and diabetes. Eur J Nutr. 2016 Nov;55(Suppl 2):25-43
7. Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intake for energy, carbohydrates, fiber, fat, protein and amino acids. National Academic Press. Washington. 2005.
8. Public Health Agency of Canada. Healthy living can prevent disease.
5. Question: Is sugar hidden in foods? No.
Information on sugars content can be found on food and beverage labels:
- The Nutrition Facts table lists "Sugars" as part of Carbohydrate (which includes sugars, starches, fibre).
- "Sugars" refers to all naturally occurring sugars (such as in milk products, fruits and vegetables) as well as sugars added to foods (e.g. table sugar, honey, maple syrup) and sugars in beverages (e.g. high fructose corn syrup, the main sweetener in soft drinks).
- The ingredient list tells you what ingredients are in a food or beverage. They are listed by weight, from most to least. After December 2021, all sugars-based ingredients will be grouped together in brackets following the term “Sugars” to help people easily identify the sources of sugars added to foods.
- Examples of ingredients you may see that refer to different types of sugars include:
Sugars listed in the ingredient list Source of sugar Sucrose, sugar, liquid sugar, invert sugar, brown sugar, icing sugar, golden syrup, turbinado sugar, molasses Sugar cane or sugar beets Glucose-fructose (high-fructose corn syrup), dextrose, glucose, corn syrup solids, high maltose corn syrup Corn starch Agave syrup, coconut sugar, fruit juice concentrate, honey, maple syrup, rice syrup, sorghum syrup Other
Why is sugar added to foods?
Sugar plays many roles in foods, beyond just adding sweetness and providing Calories. Some of these include:
- Helps to balance flavour: A little bit of sugar balances the acidity of tomato- and vinegar-based products, such as dressings and sauces.
- Helps improve the taste of high-fibre foods: A small amount of sugar can improve the flavour of high fibre sources, such as bran cereals and plain oatmeal.
- Helps add colour to baked goods: When heated, sugar caramelizes, browning the surface of cakes, breads, and cookies, while giving off a lovely aroma.
- Helps create texture and mouthfeel: Sugar helps provide the soft structure in baked goods and the smoothness in frozen dairy products.
- Helps naturally preserve jams: Sugar absorbs extra moisture to prevent bacteria from growing in jams and preserves.
- Helps bread rise: Sugar feeds yeasts in fermented foods, which is an essential step in making bread and other baked goods.
Some functions are unique to granulated sugar while others can be achieved with other sweeteners. This can make it difficult to reduce or remove the amount of sugar in certain recipes, such as baked goods. When food is made without sugar, other ingredients are added to achieve similar functions of texture, flavour, or colour. Often, sugar is replaced with starches, artificial sweeteners, or food additives that either have a similar number of Calories (e.g. starches) or require additional labelling on packages (e.g. food additives).
If trying to reduce the amount of sugar in a recipe, it is best to experiment by reducing the amount used in small increments and see if the taste, texture, and colour remain to your preference.