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Ottawa urged to establish guidelines on sugar consumption

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada is planning to unveil new guidelines on sugar consumption as early as this spring, and it is urging Ottawa to get involved by setting a firm upper limit for how much sugar Canadians can safely eat and drink in a day.

"Today, there is very little guidance on sugar as far as an upper limit goes," said Terry Dean, director of the Heart and Stroke Foundation's (HSF) nutrition-rating Health Check Program. "We would welcome that discussion because we think that we need broad guidelines for the country."

HSF began assembling a "mission advisory panel" of experts to lead a comprehensive review last fall, as evidence mounted that sugar – particularly added sugar that does not occur naturally in fruits, vegetables or dairy products – is more dangerous to human health than previously understood.

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This week, a new study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine concluded people who get 25 per cent or more of their daily calories from added sugar are three times more likely to die of heart disease.

Despite the new research and HSF's urging, Health Canada has no plans to recommend a maximum safe daily intake of sugar.

"At this time, there is no consensus in terms of an amount that would be healthful in a diet and there is no consensus on a maximum amount," said Hélène Lowell, a nutrition adviser with Health Canada.

Instead, the department advises Canadians to choose foods lower in sugar and to take part in its consultations on improving nutrition labelling.

A spokesman for Health Minister Rona Ambrose echoed that in an e-mail.

Health Canada relies on the U.S. Institute of Medicine (IOM) to guide its dietary reference intakes for vitamins, minerals and macronutrients – all of which form the basis of the general advice in Canada's Food Guide.

The IOM recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 25 per cent of total energy in a bid to keep sweet treats from pushing good-for-you fare off people's plates.

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However, when the IOM, one of the National Academies that advise the U.S. government, last examined sugar in 2002, it concluded there were "insufficient data" to set an official upper limit.

A spokeswoman for the IOM said this week that the institute would be willing to re-consider if asked to undertake a new study.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization, which already recommends people get no more than 10 per cent of daily calories from sugar, is reviewing its guidelines in light of research published last year, and could lower the bar further.

The American Heart Association recommends a sugar limit of 5 per cent of daily calories for women and 7.5 per cent for men.

"The World Health Organization and the American Heart Association both seem to think there is sufficient evidence to [set a limit,]" said Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa. "I think there is zero debate that we as a society consume way too much sugar, and I do think some guidance and more firm statements from Health Canada to that effect would go some way towards improving this."

The Globe asked health ministers across the country whether Ottawa should toughen its stance on sugar. Ontario's health minister declined to say, highlighting instead her province's plan to post calorie counts at fast-food restaurants.

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Quebec has a task force examining the issue, said Réjean Hébert, the province's Minister of Health and Social Services.

"It has made recommendations that will be made public in couple of months," he said in an interview. "It is a complicated issue. Adopting an effective strategy will not be easy."

Others were not available for interviews, but sent statements touting their governments' efforts to promote healthy eating.

With a report from Rhéal Séguin in Quebec

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Kelly Grant is a health reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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