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Health Canada Just Banned Trans Fats. Should Sugar Be Next?

Last week, I shared on social media that Health Canada will be banning the use of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) in food, effectively banning artificial trans fats from our food supply. On Twitter someone replied, “Next up, sugar.” I was tempted to tweet back, “I hope not!” But unsure whether they were being serious or just tongue-in-cheek, I decided to not incite a Twitter war and blog about it instead.

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Why a Trans Fat Ban Makes Sense

There are only a handful of foods out there that are truly artificial, and PHOs are one of them. PHOs are created via hydrogenation, a process where hydrogen is added to unsaturated fats, which give them the properties of saturated fat. (For a mini-chemistry lesson on unsaturated fats, saturated fats and trans fats, click here.) This allowed food manufacturers to create products that were more shelf-stable, while using inexpensive vegetable oils as opposed to expensive animal fats. At the same time, the low-fat craze happened, and animal fats were also getting a bad rap from a heart health perspective.

Of course, now we know that trans fats are even worse for our health – compared to saturated fats, there is a stronger correlation between trans fats and heart disease. This may be because while both trans fats and saturated fats can raise our LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, saturated fats also raise our HDL (“good”) cholesterol, while trans fats don’t do anything, or might make it lower.

From a consumer standpoint, there is really no benefit to trans fats. No one goes out of their way to think, “Damn, I’d love me some trans fats right now!” All the foods that trans fats might be present in—baked goods, fast foods or peanut butter, just to name a few—can be made with other sources of fat. The risks simply outweigh the benefits. Even shortening can be made with fully hydrogenated oil, which do not appear to have the same trans fat content as PHOs, though it is something that Health Canada says they will continue to monitor.

What About Sugar?

It’s easy to see why people would draw parallels between sugar and trans fat. While there are many natural sources of sugar, such as fruit, dairy and some vegetables, more than a third of our sugar consumption comes from added sugars. In many cases, the types and amounts of added sugars in our food are different from what would occur in nature.

To be clear, our bodies process natural and added sugars the same way – the difference is that when we eat fruit, dairy and vegetables, we’re also getting vitamins, minerals, water and other nutrients, whereas when we eat a piece of candy or drink a pop, all we’re really getting is sugar.

Sugar has definitely been painted as the nutritional baddie these days – people blame sugar for dental caries, weight gain, “addiction”, “feeding cancer”, the list goes on. Some of these claims may be overblown. Still, many people have taken matters into their own hands, committing to “quitting sugar” or participating in Sugar-Free September.

Girl Guide cookies > Sugar-Free September

Girl Guide cookies > Sugar-Free September

So, Why Not Ban Sugar?

Unlike PHOs, which are a completely artificial product, sugar is something that has always existed in our diet. Even newborns instinctively react pleasantly to sweetness.

Sugar is more than a flavour agent – it’s what makes baked goods brown, ice cream smooth, and jams thick and brightly coloured. Nutritionally, sugar is used as an easily digested energy source in products like meal replacement drinks and sports drinks, and let’s face it – sugar contributes to a lot of the pleasure in eating. As I’ve said in previous posts, if eating sucked, we wouldn’t do it, and we wouldn’t have survived as a species.

Not to mention, while banning PHOs will probably only effect some companies (especially now that many manufacturers have voluntarily stopped using them), banning sugar would be a logistical nightmare. It’s not just the obvious culprits like cookies and cereal that would be off our store shelves, but also bread, tomato sauce and canned soup. Restaurants may have to overhaul their entire menu, and you’ll have to say good-bye to traditions like pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, or gingerbread at Christmas. (And perhaps hello to everything tasting a little “off”)

Should there perhaps be a ban on specific types of sugar? Show me the evidence.

Health Canada is Far Away from Banning Sugar Anyway

The thing is, we can’t even get Health Canada to distinguish added sugars from naturally occurring sugars on the Nutrition Facts table. Instead, they’re going to add a percent daily value for sugar that is not evidence- or consensus-based. They argue that their plan to group sugars together on the ingredients list will make it easier for Canadians to manage their added sugar consumption.

What do you think? Should sugar be banned from our food supply? Is Health Canada doing enough to help us make informed choices?

6 Comments

  • Anna on Sep 23, 2017 Reply

    NO WAY. If they ban sugar it is just going to mean tons of artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners aren’t any better…

    • Vincci Tsui on Sep 23, 2017 Reply

      Good point!

  • Eleanor Charlton on Sep 21, 2017 Reply

    Ban sugar?? Heaven forbid! That would be banning chocolate, without which life would not be worth living!

    • Vincci Tsui on Sep 21, 2017 Reply

      I’m with ya on that one – or maybe it would just mean we could start a black market 😉

  • Jennifer Smith on Sep 21, 2017 Reply

    I think that any proposed ban needs to be studied for a long time before recommending it/taking it out of food completely.

    Life is (normally) long. I want to enjoy food and experiences. I feel like taking sugar out would really zap any enjoyment out of eating and some of the experiences that I look forward to. A longer life without pleasure wouldn’t be something I would want.

    • Vincci Tsui on Sep 21, 2017 Reply

      I agree!

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