The long process of updating Canada’s Food Guide and reforms to nutrition labelling will soon become a reality. Collectively called Canada’s healthy eating strategy, the proposals by Health Canada have been open to public consultation — and, unfortunately, industry lobbying.
No one is arguing with the rights of all Canadians to be heard on policies proposed by governments, but we must ensure decisions are based on neutral scientific evidence, not the persuasiveness or lobbying budgets of the processed food manufacturing sector.
We need to make sure conflict of interest is identified and not allowed to influence public-health decisions.
Many might wonder why government proclamations are crucial. After all, Canadians generally don’t carry the food guide with them to a restaurant or grocery store. Some will say they don’t want the government telling them what to eat. The goal of these policies is not to mandate what Canadians must eat, but to allow informed choices to lead to better health.
Along with being used by individuals, Canada’s Food Guide is the foundation for nutrition curriculums in schools across Canada and the basis for meal planning in most institutions: military bases, prisons, daycares, hospitals and retirement residences. It is one of the most powerful policy and education tools available to influence diets and impact our individual and collective health.
Similarly, food-packaging requirements are important and do influence food choices, as has been shown in many studies. But, unfortunately, as confirmed in a study I conducted last year with colleagues at the University of Toronto, what’s stated now on the package often doesn’t give consumers the full picture.
For example, many consumers seeing "no added sugar" on the front of a package mistakenly think it means the product has no sugar. But our study found that while over one-third of fruit drinks made the no-added-sugar claim, 99 per cent of them contained excess free sugar. Free sugars are those added to foods as well as those naturally present in syrup, honey and fruit juice; they are different from the intrinsic sugars found in whole foods such as fruit and vegetables.
Additionally, we found 85 per cent of products claiming "reduced in sugar" still contained excess sugar levels. Most food products making reduced-sugar or no-added-sugar claims did not have reduced calories, which studies show most consumers expect on foods with such claims.
It is not for nothing that the food industry invests so much in developing and refining their packaging. The information mandated by government directly impacts what we buy and what we eat.
The current proposals for prominent and clear front-of-package labelling to identify products high in saturated fat, salt or sugar are sensible and important requirements to allow people in Canada to more easily make informed choices.
The long-term impact of these policies is what makes the process used by the federal government for these changes so vital.
A group of 26 of the most prominent nutrition experts from around the world recently sent a letter to Health Canada stressing that the science is clear that excess consumption of foods and beverages high in energy, added sugar, sodium and saturated fat has a negative impact on our health. This knowledgeable group has come out in strong support of front-of-package warning labels as a way to curb consumption of these unhealthy products, most of which are processed "junk" foods.
We cannot afford to have this work undermined by food manufacturers bending the planned policies to favour their products — their short-term gain over Canadians’ long-term health. Millions of people in Canada are living with diet-related disease, costing $26 billion a year and causing 47,000 deaths in 2016. Almost one in three children are overweight or obese.
Critics of the proposed policies use scare tactics that claim the goal of the changes is to force food choices on Canadians and to hurt Canadian agriculture. The goal, of course, is to inform choices, not restrict choices. Canadian agriculture has a crucial role in supplying the many nutritious foods we all need and eat every day. That will never change.
What certainly does need to change is our steady march as a society towards obesity and diet-related sickness. Canada’s new Healthy Eating Strategy is a much-needed turn away from that fate.
Mary L’Abbé is the Earle W. McHenry professor and chair of the department of nutritional sciences, faculty of medicine, University of Toronto, where she leads a research group on food and nutrition policy for population health. She also serves as an adviser to the World Health Organization and is an expert adviser with EvidenceNetwork.ca.