Canadian Government Unveils Plan to Promote Healthier Eating Habits

On June 12, 2015, the Canada’s Minister of Health Rona Ambrose unveiled a number of proposed measures designed to give Canadians the information they need to make better choices about their nutrition and their families’ dietary needs.

At the center of the Minister’s package is a proposed nutrition label change that aims to make it easier for Canadians to read the¬†Nutrition Facts information. The regulations would mandate consistent serving sizes in order to allow shoppers to make more accurate comparisons between food choices, and would require a more user-friendly ingredient list.

‚ÄúParents told us they have difficulty comparing similar food products because the serving sizes displayed on labels were inconsistent and did not reflect the amount of food they typically eat. For this reason, our Government is mandating the standardization of serving sizes so Canadians can more easily compare products and make better decisions about healthy foods,” says Minister Ambrose.

The regulations target one food ingredient in particular: sugar. The proposed changes would give Canadians clear information about the sugars contained in various foods and include a percentage daily value for sugar, which is currently not provided on Canadian nutrition labels. Sugars would also be identified differently, using methods that are easier for consumers to interpret and understand. For example, the label would describe how much sugar is in a product, whether the amount included is considered a little or a lot of sugar, and the source of the sugar.

The new label, however, would not provide any information regarding the amount of added sugar in a product.

“Our Government is breaking new ground with our proposal on the labelling of sugars on foods sold in¬†Canada. Nowhere else in the world will consumers have the kind of information Canadians will have about the sugars contained in the foods they eat,” says Minister Ambrose.

Manufacturers would also be required to list all food coloring agents by their common names within the ingredient list, which would afford consumers who are sensitive to some of these coloring agents to identify and avoid them more easily.

Fruits and vegetables would receive a boost if the proposed package is accepted. The regulations would allow a new health claim on pre-packaged fruits and vegetables regarding the health benefits that can be realized from consuming a produce-rich diet.

In addition to a label change, the Minister proposed establishing a new set of educational tools for the public, including two mobile food apps: My Food Guide and Eat Well Plate. Both apps include Canada’s dietary guidance, known as Canada’s Food Guide, and seek to provide users with tools for designing a healthy meal.

Eat Well Plate helps users visualize food proportions and encourages them to fill half of their plate with fruits and vegetables. The My Food Guide app would help Canadians access healthy eating information with the touch of a button, allowing users to create an easy-to-use customized Canada’s Food Guide to help them understand Food Guide services and the types of foods that they should choose for their dietary needs.

The proposed labeling changes deliver on a commitment made by the Government of Canada in 2013 to consult with Canadian parents and consumers on how to improve the way nutrition information is presented on food labels.¬†“Parents told us they have difficulty comparing similar food products because the serving sizes displayed on labels were inconsistent and did not reflect the amount of food they typically eat. For this reason, our Government is mandating the standardization of serving sizes so Canadians can more easily compare products and make better decisions about healthy foods.”

The Minister’s package is the product of over 10,000¬†comments made by parents, consumers, and health organizations during various meetings held throughout 2014. Canadians will have an opportunity to comment on the proposed regulations until August 26, 2015.

The label change represents another step in Canada’s move toward a more health-conscious leadership. Earlier this year, Minister Ambrose announced a policy designed to help¬†individuals with Celiac’s disease, a medical condition that is triggered by the consumption of gluten, make safer choices about the foods they purchase and consume by approving “gluten-free” claims on specially produced oats and foods containing the oats. The label change also opened¬†a new segment of the market to Canadian oat growers and food processors.

Canada’s announcement comes¬†on the heals of the United States Food and Drug Administration’s¬†decision to revamp America’s nutrition label. There are many similarities between Canada’s proposed changes and the FDA’s proposed changes.¬†For example,¬†the FDA is considering adding more information about the amount of added sugars in foods. According to the FDA’s website, “Many experts recommend consuming fewer calories from added sugar because they can decrease the intake of nutrient-rich foods while increasing calorie intake.”

Some reports suggest that the average American consumes 23 teaspoons of sugar per day, which is substantially more than the recommended amounts–6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men. Considering the sugar content of many popular beverages and snack items, exceeding the recommended daily amount is not that hard. A 20 ounce Coke, for example, includes 15 teaspoons of sugar, while many popular yogurt brands pack over 6 teaspoons per container.

Additionally, the FDA is evaluating the current serving size requirements, considering a change that would more accurately reflect the way that people eat and drink today, which is not the same as it was when the serving sizes were created roughly 20 years ago. According to the FDA, the current serving size measurements are more reflecting of the way that people should eat than how they actually eat.

As a result, the FDA may require manufacturers of products that are considered large or multi-serving to provide a dual-column nutrition label. One column would represent the nutrition information for a single serving while the second column would include the nutrition information for the entire package. Examples of food items that would fall in the dual-column category include a pint of ice cream of a 24-ounce bottle of soda.

Some studies suggest, however, that the standard nutrition label falls short when it comes to helping people make more educated choices about their health. As one Harvard study points out, interpreting the numerical information reflecting the amount of calories, fat, sugar, sodium, and nutrients in a food requires the consumer to have¬†a working knowledge and understanding of dietary science–something many people lack.

The study examined the effectiveness of a simple “traffic light” color coding system for food in a hospital cafeteria. The color of the label reflected the nutritional quality of each item. Green was reserved for the healthiest items, such as vegetables, fruit, and lean meats. Yellow labels were affixed to food items containing moderately healthy choices, while red stickers were applied to options that had little to no nutritional value. A sign located nearby the food display encouraged consumers to purchase green items frequently, yellow items on occasion, and discouraged the purchase of red items. The cash register recorded the color of each item that was purchased during the test window.

According to the results, the number of people who looked at nutritional information on an item before making a purchase doubled from 15 to 33 percent. Folks who noticed the color coded labeling system bought a larger proportion of green items and fewer red items than the people who did not notice the color coded system. Prior to the beginning of the study, 46 percent of participants indicated that health and nutrition were important factors in their mealtime choices. After the study, that number rose to 61 percent.

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