Health Canada may be biting off more than it can chew

Health Canada recently announced that it will completely overhaul its food labelling regulations – and replace its iconic food guide

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Sylvain CharleboisShould Canadians’ food choices be a matter for bureaucrats and legislators to decide, or should it ultimately be left up to consumers?

Health Canada recently announced that it will completely overhaul its food labelling regulations – and replace its iconic food guide.

Protecting children and encouraging healthy lifestyles seem to be at the core of this initiative, which could take up to 10 years.

This comprehensive nutrition project will include the food guide, and guidelines for saturated fats, sodium, sugar and a number of other food ingredients. It is one of the most ambitious policy-driven initiatives Canadians have seen in half a century.

But the strategy is perhaps too audacious. A project this broad-based will likely only result in a short list of successes – and a much longer list of failures.

The Canada Food Guide has been around since 1942, with little significant change since. The latest version, introduced in 2007 with minor, insignificant changes, offers a cookie-cutter approach, designed to fit any demographic.

But in the face of more immigration, diversity and non-traditional lifestyles, the guide has been obsolete for decades.

A new guide must showcase ways of consuming and celebrating foods. Food traditions among First Nations, French Canadians and other communities should be captured as the guide shares our population’s diverse culinary values.

When it comes to food, context is key. Many nations encourage citizens to eat the food found in certain environments. How and where food is consumed is equally as important as what’s consumed.

An ingredient-focused campaign has merit but some battles will be easier to win than others. Trans fats is an example of a relatively easy battle. When Canada made it mandatory to include trans fats on nutrition labels – only the second country to do so, after Denmark – many products were shown to contain the fats. Through research and development, trans fats have now completely disappeared from store shelves. A ban on trans fats at this point would only be redundant.

When it comes to sodium, the challenges will be greater. We are a nation of sodium addicts. The average Canadian consumes over 3,400 mg of sodium a day, more than twice the needed daily intake. That’s a menace to Canadians. Many companies have tried to reduce sodium content in soups, sauces and other products. A public strategy can set a benchmark and it’s possible to change public tastes for the better, over time. But it will require mandated incremental changes. Industry can develop and distribute healthier products with more confidence if the government establishes a level playing field.

Sugar is public enemy No. 1 – what tobacco was a few decades ago. More than 70 per cent of all processed products sold in Canada have added sugar – and most Canadians are unaware. Raising awareness about added sugar should happen immediately. Clear labelling is the most practical way to communicate risks to consumers.

Enforcement of ingredients can be tricky, however. Many products are manufactured outside our borders and that makes dictating things like sugar and sodium volumes difficult. If our laws become too restrictive, multinationals could just forfeit the Canadian market. As well, protectionist policies can trigger higher food prices.

Marketing to children is another contentious aspect of this roadmap. The Quebec law regarding marketing to children is ineffective, since most children are exposed to advertising from outside the province. In fact, the childhood obesity rate in Quebec has risen three per cent since the province implemented a ban on targeted marketing. A 2010 World Health Organization report suggested that advertising to children is a questionable issue, since it’s difficult to identify an exact cause for higher consumption of unhealthy products. The most effective guarantors of children’s healthy diets are parents. Education is key and many studies suggest that lifelong learning is a powerful tool in fighting obesity.

But the biggest challenge to this nutrition initiative is the timeframe. Governments come and go. The process will likely be influenced by election deadlines, economic cycles and unforeseen events that can easily derail initiatives.

A few bites at a time – publishing the new Canada Food Guide, for instance – before the next election will make a difference, as bureaucrats, legislators and consumers together draw up a recipe for healthy eating in the 21st century.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Sylvain is a Troy Media contributor. Why aren’t you?

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health canada, food

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Sylvain Charlebois

Sylvain Charlebois is a Canadian researcher and professor in food distribution and food policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He is Dalhousie's past Dean of the Faculty of Management and is a professor and Director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab.

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