Researchers checking for added sugar on the ingredients lists of packaged foods and beverages expected to find it in candy products, but they didn't predict the high levels they would find in baby food, snack bars and beverages.
In looking at more than 40,000 prepackaged foods, researchers found that two-thirds of all those products contained at least one form of added sugar.
"We find that three-quarters of all beverages had added sugar, that products that often people associate with a healthy alternative, things like snack bars—I think it was 99.4 per cent of snack bars contained added sugars. We even found that about half of baby food included added sugar,'' said David Hammond, professor in the school of public health at the University of Waterloo.
"So it wasn't a case of were the levels high and low in some other categories. It was a case of high and higher.''
Hammond and fellow researchers searched for 30 different added-sugar items in the ingredients lists of packaged foods and beverages for sale at a major Canadian grocery retailer in March 2015. The results of their study were published Thursday in the journal CMAJ Open.
Added sugar generally refers to sugars that are mixed into foods and beverages during preparation or processing, while intrinsic sugars are found in intact fruits and vegetables or occur naturally in milk.
"There's no problem nutritionally with sugars that are found in milk and in fruit, but one of the areas where we get a lot of our added sugar is in liquid form in beverages. People make distinctions between a bottle of orange juice being much better in terms of sugar than a similar sized bottle of Coke,'' Hammond explained.
"Well, you look at our analysis and it tells you, as do other sources, actually juices have just as high levels of sugar as do soda pop.''
But detecting added sugars on packaging can be tough for consumers. Many might not be recognized, like maltodextrin, which was in the top six forms of added sugar among the products analyzed, said Hammond.
Other added sugars include dextrose, glucose, corn syrup, molasses, lactose, treacle and ethyl maltol.
There's a growing body of evidence that excess consumption of added sugar is associated with health problems including heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, high blood cholesterol levels, cancer and tooth decay.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada recommends limiting consumption of added sugars to a maximum of 10 per cent of total daily calorie intake.
It was particularly distressing that 48 per cent of baby foods contained ``meaningful amounts'' of added sugar, with the average around 12 grams, or about three cubes of sugar, said Hammond.
"The industry I think reasonably will say they're just catering to our tastes.... I don't think it holds much water when you're talking about half of all baby foods containing added sugar,'' he said. "That is where they're shaping our palate, not responding to it.''
Almost 80 per cent of juices, pops and sports drinks analyzed were found to contain sugar.
Other categories included condiments, sauces and spreads, with 73.1 per cent containing added sugar; baked goods (70.6 per cent); protein foods (56.6 per cent); grains (38 per cent); fruits and vegetables products (34.8 per cent); and milk and dairy (29.6 per cent).
Health Canada announced amendments to packaging rules last month that include grouping sugar-based ingredients together in the ingredients list. But the revised nutrition facts table is currently not slated to include the amount of added sugar.
"I think that's a real missed opportunity and when you line that up with what we found in terms of the number of products and the amount of added sugar in these products I think it's a real shame,'' said Hammond.
Dietitians of Canada, too, were disappointed Health Canada opted to forgo the line for added sugars, spokeswoman Kate Comeau said from Halifax. But she says grouping together added sugars in the ingredients list is a positive change.
This study is also helpful to provide a baseline before new labelling regulations are put into place, she added.