Sugar consumption among Canadians of all ages

by Kellie Langlois and Didier Garriguet

One in every five calories that Canadians consume comes from sugar.  This dietary sugar may occur naturally, for instance, in fruit and milk, or it may have been added to foods and beverages to improve palatability, for instance, in soft drinks, salad dressings, syrup and candy.

Although the body handles naturally occurring and added sugar in the same way, foods high in added sugar tend to have lower nutrient densities, and thus, provide little nutritional value.  By contrast, foods with naturally occurring sugars tend to be higher in nutrients.1

Some debate surrounds the association between high sugar intake and adverse health effects, such as tooth decay, hyperactivity, and obesity.2-4  No recommendations have been made about the intake of total sugar, nor does consensus exist about the consumption of added sugars.  The Institute of Medicine recommends that no more than 25% of total daily energy intake (calories) come from added sugars.  The World Health Organization recommends a daily maximum of 10% of calories from free sugars.5

This article describes dietary intake of sugar in a nationally representative sample of Canadian children and adults.  Nutritional information was collected via a 24-hour dietary recall as part of the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS)—Nutrition.  Respondents were asked to report everything they ate and drank during the previous 24 hours.  The sugar content of these foods and beverages was determined using Health Canada's Canadian Nutrient File 2001b, Supplement6 (see The data).  This study reports daily intake of sugar by food group and by the top ten sources, but the data do not distinguish between naturally occurring and added sugars.  As a result, it is not possible to assess where Canadians stand in relation to the Institute of Medicine and World Health Organization thresholds.  The term "sugar" in this article represents the sum of naturally occurring and added sugars.

Average daily intake

On average, in 2004, Canadians consumed 110.0 grams of sugar a day, the equivalent of 26 teaspoons.7 This amounted to 21.4% of their total daily calorie intake.

Absolute daily sugar consumption varied substantially with age (Figure 1).  It was lowest among women aged 71 or older (83 grams or 20 teaspoons), and highest among teenage boys aged 14 to 18 (172 grams or 41 teaspoons).  In every age group, males consumed significantly more sugar than did females.

Figure 1 Average daily sugar intake, by age group and sex, household population aged 1 or older, Canada excluding territories, 2004Figure 1 Average daily sugar intake, by age group and sex, household population aged 1 or older, Canada excluding territories, 2004

The picture differs when the average percentage of daily calories coming from sugar is considered (Figure 2).  From age 19 on, women derived a significantly higher percentage of their total calories from sugar than did men.  The average ranged from a low of 19% among men aged 31 to 70 to 27% among children aged 1 to 3.

Figure 2 Percentage of daily calories from sugar, by age group and sex, household population aged 1 or older, Canada excluding territories, 2004Figure 2 Percentage of daily calories from sugar, by age group and sex, household population aged 1 or older, Canada excluding territories, 2004

Food groups

To some extent, the sugar derived from the various food groups may be used as a proxy to distinguish between added versus naturally occurring sugars (Table 1).  Sugar from vegetables and fruit and from milk products is more likely to be naturally occurring than is sugar that comes from the "other" foods category, which includes items such as soft drinks and candy that are high in added sugars.1

Table 1 Percentage distribution of sources of sugar intake, by food group, age group and sex, household population aged 1 or older, Canada excluding territories, 2004Table 1 Percentage distribution of sources of sugar intake, by food group, age group and sex, household population aged 1 or older, Canada excluding territories, 2004

Overall, more than a third (35%) of the sugar that Canadians consumed came from the "other" foods category.  The percentage peaked at 46% among teenage boys (Table 1).  Regardless of age, males consumed more sugar from "other" foods than did females.

The percentage of total sugar intake that came from "other" foods rose from 17% at ages 1 to 3 to more than 40% at ages 14 to 18.  However, among seniors aged 71 or older the percentage was  25%.  The relatively low sugar intake of older adults (94 grams a day for men; 83 grams for women) was attributable to the decline in sugar from "other" foods associated with advancing age.

In fact, individuals who consumed the most sugar (above the 75th percentile in the distribution of consumption) derived more of it from the "other" foods category (and therefore, from added sugars) than from food groups that contain more naturally occurring sugars.  Conversely, people who consumed the least sugar (in the 25th percentile of the distribution) got significantly less sugar from the "other" foods category than did individuals above the 75th percentile.  This was true among children and adolescents (25% versus 38%) and among adults (27% versus 40%) (data not shown). 

Top ten sources

Ten sources accounted for approximately 85% of total sugar intake (Table 2).  Almost half (44%) the average daily sugar intake of children and adolescents came from beverages, specifically milk (20% at ages 1 to 8; 14% at ages 9 to 18), fruit juice (15% and 9%), regular soft drinks (4% and 14%), and fruit drinks (6% and 7%).  Milk was the primary source of sugar among children aged 1 to 8, but by ages 9 to 18, regular soft drinks ranked first.  Beverages accounted for 35% of adults' daily sugar intake.  Fruit also ranked high as a source of sugar:  15% for children and 17% for adults; apples and bananas were the most popular (data not shown).  The percentage of sugar derived from confectionary items (for instance, chocolate bars, candies) was about twice as high for children (9%) and adolescents (10%) as for adults (5%).

Table 2 Top ten sources of sugar intake, by age group, household population aged 1 or older, Canada excluding territories, 2004Table 2 Top ten sources of sugar intake, by age group, household population aged 1 or older, Canada excluding territories, 2004

Diabetes

As part of their treatment, diabetics are advised to eat a well-balanced diet and limit their added sugar intake to less than 10% of daily calories.16  Results of the 2004 CCHS indicate that diabetics consume significantly less total sugar than do non-diabetics: 73.4 versus 111.5 grams a day (Table 3). As a percentage of daily calories, sugar consumption among diabetics answering the survey averaged 17%. This was significantly lower than non-diabetics' daily average of 21.5% of calories.  As well, compared with people who did not have diagnosed diabetes, diabetics derived a larger percentage of the sugar they consumed from vegetables and fruit (40% versus 31%), milk (20% versus 18%) and grains (16% versus 14%), and a much lower percentage from the "other" foods category (21% versus 35%).

Table 3 Average daily sugar intake and percentage distribution of sources of sugar, by diabetes status, household population aged 1 or older, Canada excluding territories, 2004Table 3 Average daily sugar intake and percentage distribution of sources of sugar, by diabetes status, household population aged 1 or older, Canada excluding territories, 2004

Conclusion

The sugar that Canadians consume accounts for 21% of their daily calories.  While 31% of this sugar comes from vegetables and fruit, a higher percentage―35%―comes from "other" foods.  Beverages are among the top sources of sugar.  Diabetics consume significantly less sugar than do non-diabetics.