Sugar has gotten a bad rap and for some good reasons. It’s in almost everything and we know too much isn’t good for us. But how much is too much and what’s a safe amount to consume without negative health implications? Before we dive into that lets first talk about what sugar is.

Sugar is a carbohydrate. It can be defined as any short-chain, sweet-tasting carbohydrate.  Sucrose, or table sugar, is a disaccharide, meaning it is made up of two monosaccharide molecules (one being glucose and one being fructose). It comes from sugar cane or sugar beets. We say chain because these molecules are strung together almost like a pearl necklace, creating a ‘chain’ of sugars. There are other types of short-chain sweet-tasting carbohydrates most commonly lactose (glucose and galactose) which is found in milk and maltose (glucose and glucose) which is most often found in cereals and breads. These types of carbohydrates are rapidly broken down in the body, which can be good in some situations like after or during long duration exercises (soccer game or long-distance run) or if you have diabetes and are treating an episode of hypoglycemia.

What about the long-chain carbohydrates? These types are sometimes known as complex carbohydrates, or polysaccharides or oligosaccharides. We typically know them as starch, cellulose (or fibre) and glycogen. Some of these longer-chain carbohydrates, specifically fibre, are indigestible by human digestive enzymes. Once they pass through our stomach and they will eventually end up in our large intestine. Here they can be partially broken down by our gut bacteria and fermented. This can sometimes cause flatulence, or gas! Despite the gas there are many benefits to eating these types of carbohydrates like helping to keep you feeling full, reducing your risk for some types of cancers, helping to lower your blood cholesterol levels and helping to control your blood sugars. The other types of longer-chain carbohydrates that can be digested, like starch, break down more slowly than sugar. Meaning they have less of an impact on our blood sugar levels than short-chain carbohydrates.

It’s good to eat a variety of different types of carbohydrate containing foods to ensure we are meeting all of our nutrient needs. Because of the health benefits of eating complex-carbohydrates it’s best to choose those types more often. Usually about half of our calories come from carbohydrates so that leaves lots of opportunities to get many different foods introduced into your diet.

Now that we know what sugar or a carbohydrate is let’s talk a little bit more about the foods we can find them in. Carbohydrates or sugars occur naturally in lots of different foods like Grains and Starches (potatoes, rice, pasta, breads), Fruit (apples, bananas, grapes) and Milk and Alternatives (cow’s milk and yogurt). Other foods have added sugars. Sugar is added to food to make it taste sweeter, change texture and colour and sometimes to preserve it. We often find added sugars in processed foods like pop, breakfast cereals, fruit drinks, baked goods, and condiments and sauces. Some foods have both added and natural sugars like flavoured yogurt or applesauce.

Your body uses natural and added sugars in the same way. However, foods with natural sugars have more healthy nutrients like fibre, vitamins and minerals. Foods with added sugars usually do not. Choosing foods that are low in added sugars can help to prevent and manage obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, some cancers, dental cavities, gout and can lead to an overall healthier diet.


1 can of pop = 10 packets of added sugar

So how much added sugar is it ok to have in a day? Health Canada recommends limiting foods with added sugars or eating less than 10% of your total daily calories from added sugars. For the average person that would be less than 50 g of added sugar/day or 12.5 teaspoons or packets of sugar. If you drank one can of soda pop that would be almost all of you allowed added sugar for the entire day!

What else has added sugars and how do we know?

  1. Read food labels to help you choose foods with less added sugars.

Check the ingredient list to see if any sugars have been added. Current nutrition facts labels do not differentiate between natural or added sugars – the ingredient list is the best way to tell. If you are looking at the nutrition facts table, look under ‘Carbohydrates’ and find the amount of sugar (in grams) in one serving of food. Compare products of the same serving size and choose the one with less sugar.

If the following sugars are listed as one of the first few ingredients on a food package, the food is likely high in added sugars.

·        agave

·        brown sugar

·        cane juice

·        corn syrup

·        demerara

·        dextrose or dextrin

·        fructose (fruit sugar)

·        fruit juice or concentrate

·        galactose

·        glucose

·        glucose-fructose

·        high fructose corn

·        syrup

·        honey

·        icing sugar

·        invert sugar

·        liquid sugar

·        maltodextrin

·        maltose

·        malt syrup

·        maple syrup

·        molasses

·        nectar

·        raw sugar

·        sucrose

·        treacle

·        white sugar


Added sugars like honey, maple syrup and agave may be considered more ‘natural’, but they are not healthier than other types of added sugars and contain the same amount of calories.

Here are a few steps you can take to limit added sugars:

Choose minimally processed foods. These foods do not contained added sugars:

  • vegetables and fruit
  • unsweetened whole grain products like whole grain bread, pasta and breakfast cereals
  • unsweetened milk products (cow’s milk, plain yogurt, lacteze, plain soy milk)
  • lean meats, poultry, fish, and plain tofu
  • plain nuts and seeds
  • legumes, like dried beans, peas and lentils

Other tips:

  • Try gradually reducing the sugar in your coffee or tea over time
  • If you’re buying packaged canned fruit look for ones packed in water
  • Use vanilla or cinnamon to flavour yogurt or oatmeal instead of sugar
  • Try seasoning stir-fry’s with herbs and spices instead of condiments with lots of added sugar such as sweet and sour sauce
  • Switch your regular soda for a glass of water with a slice of lemon or frozen berries to add flavour
  • When baking try reducing the sugar by 1/3 of what the recipe calls for

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