Canadians are eating the equivalent of three Kit Kat bars a day worth of free sugars, a University of Alberta study suggests, and could save $2.5 billion a year if they cut back to two.
U of A epidemiologist Paul Veugelers co-authored a study in the Canadian Journal of Public Health March 15 on the economic burden of excessive sugar consumption in Canada.
Medical researchers have linked many chronic conditions to excessive sugar consumption, Veugelers said. A 2020 study by Veugelers and his team found that just 33.8 per cent of Canadians followed the World Health Organization’s healthy eating recommendation to limit free sugars (added sugars plus sugar in honey, syrup, and juice) to less than 10 per cent, and ideally less than five per cent, of their daily energy intake.
The team used data from the 2015 Canadian Community Health Survey and risk estimates for chronic diseases linked to free sugar consumption to estimate how much money Canada could save if everyone followed the WHO’s sugar guidelines.
The team found Canadians ate the equivalent of about 67 grams of free sugars a day — roughly the amount found in three 45-gram Kit Kat chocolate bars, The Gazette estimates. To meet the WHO guideline of 10 per cent, Canadians would have to cut back to about 50 grams a day (2.2 Kit Kats).
The team estimated that Canada could prevent about 27 per cent of all cases of diabetes if Canadians met the 10 per cent guideline, and about 45 per cent if they met the five per cent guideline. Canadians would also experience less heart disease, kidney disease, cancer, and lower back pain.
The team found excess sugar consumption cost Canada about $2.5 billion a year in direct and indirect health-care costs, about 93 per cent of which is due to diabetes. Canadians would save about $5 billion a year — a bit less than Alberta’s 2022 post-secondary education budget — if they followed the WHO’s five per cent guideline for sugar.
“These amounts are way, way higher than the amount that could be saved if we put taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages,” Veugelers said, as just 17 per cent of the free sugar in Canadian diets comes from such drinks.
Despite that, Veugelers noted that Canada is still debating the merits of such a beverage tax — a tax about 40 nations have already implemented.
How to cut back
While candy, ice cream, and chocolate are obvious sources for sugar, Veugelers said many other foods such as pasta sauce also have sugar added for taste or preservation.
“Sugar is hidden in so many products.”
Janna Bokenfohr, a registered dietician with the St. Albert and Sturgeon Primary Care Network, said in an email she is not surprised most Canadians are not meeting the WHO’s sugar guidelines.
“The healthy choice is no longer the easy choice when our busy lives are coupled with ever-increasing food costs and an environment filled with convenient, delicious options,” she said.
Still, Bokenfohr said it is very possible to meet the WHO’s sugar target if you eat three balanced meals a day and plan for healthy snacks.
“Instead of swearing off sugar, try focusing on the foods you could be eating more of,” she said, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and proteins.
Bokenfohr recommends replacing juice and sweetened drinks with sugar-free options, and not giving kids pop or juice outside of meal times (stick with water). Check nutrition labels, too — if a product has more than eight grams of sugar in it, treat it as an occasional treat rather than an everyday food.
Veugelers called for a tax on all free-sugar-containing foods, the money from which should go toward healthy eating education and subsidies on healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, especially in remote communities and at food banks.
The study can be found here.