Two-thirds of packaged foods and beverages on Canadian grocery shelves, including some infant formulas and baby food, contain added sugars, a new study has found.

The latest research, conducted by Public Health Ontario and the University of Waterloo, illustrates just how difficult it is for Canadians to keep track of their sugar intake and interpret the nutrition labels on everyday food items.

The study, published Wednesday in CMAJ Open, analyzed more than 40,000 packaged food products available for sale at a major Canadian grocery chain in March 2015.

By searching for 30 different terms for added sugar, researchers found that 66 per cent of those products have at least one added sugar in their ingredients list. The items included some infant formulas, baby food, yogurt, breakfast cereals and fruit juice.

Unsurprisingly, 86 per cent of examined snacks and sweets had added sugars. About 79 per cent of beverages listed addedsugars, as did nearly 74 per cent of yogurts. Just under half of infant formulas and baby food products also had added sugars.

The researchers said the analyzed items are “a realistic approximation of the entire Canadian packaged food supply.”

The study defined “added sugars” as all sugars added to foods by the manufacturer, plus the sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juice concentrates. Fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh meat, and raw ingredients (such as baking ingredients, coffee, tea, fats and oils) were excluded from the study.

The study provides a “unique” contribution to the ongoing discussions about the need to limit sugar consumption and improve Canadians’ diets, co-author Erin Hobin said.

“Although other studies have looked at added sugar products in our food supply, it has never been done on such a large scale before,” Hobin, a scientist with Public Health Ontario, told in a phone interview.

Researchers say there is a growing body of evidence that excess consumption of added sugar is associated with heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, and cancer, among other health problems.

Last year, the World Health Organization said people around the globe are consuming too much sugar and should reduce their intake to just 12 teaspoons a day, or 6 teaspoons for “additional health benefits.” A single can of cola has about 10 teaspoons of sugar.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation Canada also recommends a daily intake of about 12 teaspoons, or 48 grams, of added sugars.

However, “Canadian adults and children are eating two to three times more added sugar than what the WHO recommends,” Hobin said.

“You’re just so much more likely to overeat foods with processed sugars."

And those trying to eat better can sometimes find it impossible to decipher the various descriptions for added sugars on nutrition labels.

“It definitely is tricky,” Hobin said. “So many products in our food supply contain added sugars…and you really need to be a detective to figure it out.”

What to look for on food labels

Some labelling terms, such as fructose, sucrose and corn syrup, are easily recognizable. But dextrose, maltodextrin, barley malt, carob and ethyl maltol are also added sugars – and much less familiar terms.

In December, Health Canada announced changes to food labelling that will show consumers how much sugar is in a product by grouping together all sugar-based ingredients. But the new labels won’t specify the amount of added sugars. Hobin called it “a missed opportunity.”

The labels also won’t be seen for several years, since the food industry was given until 2021 to make the changes.

Hobin said there are some simple things Canadians can do to improve their diets, such as avoiding pop and swapping sugary fruit juices with water and fresh fruits.

But getting food manufacturers to cut back on added sugars is still “an uphill battle,” despite some “baby steps” toward improvements in recent years, she said.

In a statement to CTV News Thursday, the Canadian Sugar Institute said it “welcomes and reviews all new research information in the context of the overall body of evidence related to sugars and health.”

But the institute said the latest study has “a number of limitations,” including the fact that the analyzed products all came from one major grocery store chain, and that only pre-packaged foods were considered.

The study does not reflect “the wide range of food choices Canadians make beyond grocery stores, such as local stores, farmers’ markets, and restaurants,” the statement said.

The institute also said that the average Canadian consumes about 11 per cent of their daily energy from all sources of added sugars, which is close to the World Health Organization guideline of 10 per cent.

“Statistics Canada data shows that Canadian availability of added sugars from all sources in the food supply has declined by 17 per cent over the past three decades,” the institute said.  “Canadian intakes of added sugars are about 1/3 less than that in the United States.”