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Sugary drinks to be labelled with calorie counts

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The contemporary view of sugary beverages is a lot like celebrity gossip blogs: Filled with junk, and definitely not for kids.

Now, under assault from public health experts who link their consumption to everything from obesity to Type 2 diabetes, makers of pop, sports drinks and juice are striking back with an effort to give more nutritional information to consumers to help them make healthy choices.

Under a new initiative called Clear on Calories, major beverage companies across the country, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé, will soon start posting calorie count labels prominently on the front of product packages.

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"It's a fundamental change," said Justin Sherwood, president of Refreshments Canada, an industry association representing beverage companies. "This is the information consumers are looking for."

The move represents a growing trend in the food and beverage industry to provide health-conscious consumers with more nutritional information as a way of fighting criticism their products are unhealthy.

But public health and nutritional experts question whether the approach encourages healthy choices, or just dresses up nutritionally-negligent products.

One of the central criticisms is that caloric information doesn't mean much unless it's placed in proper context of how many calories a consumer should be consuming in a day.

"Without also educating people about what calories actually means and how you can now use that information to be incorporated into a diet, those numbers are really meaningless," said Arya Sharma, chair of obesity research and management at the University of Alberta.

For instance, a 250 millilitre serving, or one full cup, of Tropicana Pure Premium Original orange juice has 110 calories. The average six to seven year-old girl who gets plenty of exercise needs about 1,700 calories a day, according to Health Canada.

If the girl drinks a glass of that juice at breakfast, lunch and dinner, she will consume 330 calories. Nearly 20 per cent of her daily calories will be consumed in juice.

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Health experts are worried about the fact many children and teens consume juice and pop regularly because the drinks can load them up on calories without providing the nutrition they need throughout the day. As a result, children who are still eating regular meals and snacks will end up consuming more calories than they should because of the beverages they are consuming, which can contribute to weight gain and obesity.

"If it's not just sort of lip service to the concept of healthy eating, why not take it a step further or two steps further to language people can understand?" said Rosie Schwartz, a Toronto-based dietitian and outspoken advocate on nutrition issues.

Some experts also suggest that drawing attention to calories alone diverts attention from other important information about the amount of sodium, sugar, caffeine or other ingredients that may be in the drink.

For instance, a 591 millilitre bottle of Powerade Solar Flare has 75 milligrams of sodium, a fairly significant amount, and about 10 teaspoons of sugar. A 250 millilitre serving of Coca-Cola has 26 milligrams of sodium and nearly eight teaspoons of sugar.

"If you put it in teaspoons of sugar [on product labels]then people might understand, but they don't want people to know how many teaspoons of sugar are in there," Ms. Schwartz said. "I think the sugar may scare people away, and as they should be."

Mr. Sherwood said calories are the most important piece of information for consumers when it comes to beverages and that singling out sugary drinks as the cause of the obesity epidemic is a "huge oversimplification."

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He also pointed out that most of the beverages are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, not sugar. Although the beverage industry has defended high fructose corn syrup, a mixture of glucose and fructose, it has been vilified by many nutrition experts who say it is linked to higher rates of health problems, such as diabetes, than regular sugar.

While sugary beverages might not be the sole cause of overweight and obesity problems plaguing Canada, there is also no compelling reason parents should offer them to children, said Manuel Arango, assistant director of policy at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

"There are only health risks [to sugary drinks]and no nutritional benefits," he said. "Why would you encourage your child to consume a product like that when there's really no benefit whatsoever?"

Consumers should also be aware of the fact that the calories on the label may reflect different serving sizes. Under the new initiative, beverages up to 591 millilitres in size will display caloric information based on the full size of the drink. But larger beverages will display caloric information based on smaller serving sizes, such as 250 millilitres, which could make it challenging for consumers to understand how many calories they're consuming.

"You want to be able to provide a bit more information than that," Mr. Arango said.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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