A matter of nutrition facts
The U.S. FDA has recently made it obvious that it is planning to introduce changes to nutrition labelling. The last major reform in this regard was in 1993. In contrast, mandatory nutrition labelling (MNL) was introduced in Canada in 2002, with transitional provisions for compliance up to 2005, and 2007 for smaller business. The interest building in the U.S. will spill over to Canada. A Canadian nutrition facts table (NFT) is highly leveraged on the U.S. nutrition facts panel (NFP). If the U.S. NFP is deemed to be inadequate, what does that say about our NFT?
One pet peeve of the U.S. NFP concerns the mandatory requirement to include calories from fat. In Canada this is a voluntary feature rarely seen. Twenty years ago fat was the bad ingredient, and foods better not have had too much of it. How little we knew, and how little we still know. The story of fat continues to evolve – today we view saturated fat as bad and polyunsaturated such as the omega fatty acids (FA) as good. That, however, is not the entire truth either. Too much omega FA is not good. Then there are medium chain saturated fats that might in fact be beneficial. It’s no longer about avoiding fats, but finding the right balance in our diets. The advantage of a Canadian NFT is that there is provision to list, although voluntary unless claims are made, polyunsaturated fat, omega-3 and omega-6 FA. There is no current provision to distinguish the type of saturated fats. In the U.S. there is a provision to include polyunsaturates in an NFP, but not to differentiate between omega-3 or omega-6 FA. Nutrition labelling modernization without addressing fat will shortchange the next 20 years of MNL.
Calories are now public enemy number-1. It has become very obvious that the majority of the population over-consume energy. After 20 years of MNL in the U.S. the disconnect between the NFP’s role in supporting good dietary practices has become obvious. Nutrition labelling modernization would be hard to imagine if calories were not a target for special emphasis. The U.S. has been toying with front-of-packaging nutrition labelling to clearly expose key nutrition information. While the idea has had mixed reviews, it is perhaps unrealistic not to expect the FDA to employ such a strategy since the current one is not effective. In Canada, front-of-package nutrition labelling is accommodated, but is not mandatory. The U.S. is already ahead of Canada when it comes to providing calorie and nutrition information on non-prepackaged food such as those in restaurants. If the U.S. enhances calorie labelling, will Canada follow?
Sodium is the jewel in our love affair with food. We crave it, but are told to limit our intake. This is a hard nut to crack. Both Canada and the U.S. are also looking at strategies to reduce the presence of sodium in foods. Enhanced sodium labelling on its own is likely not sufficient to achieve a more reasonable sodium intake and better health outcomes. We may need stronger intervention on this one!
Serving sizes are often not well understood by consumers on both sides of the border, particularly when they may differ for single and multiple-serve containers of the same food. The U.S. system is far more rigid when it comes to serving sizes. The Canadian system provides, with limits, more flexibility for a manufacturer to determine what a reasonable serving size should be for their products. Many nutrition-related claims are then tempered by having to also be qualified based on regulated reference amounts (RA) for that food type. Rounding values to zero in Canada is also far more precise than in the U.S. Constructing a Canadian NFT is thus more complex than a U.S. NFP, but that may be to the advantage of consumers. One shoe does not fit all sizes. More flexibility here, but with a more effective use of RAs to perhaps trigger nutrient disclosures, might be a better way to deliver the information.
It has become evident that current nutrition labelling is not delivering on its promise of driving consumers to healthy eating. Perhaps that might be an over expectation. MNL is at best is just a delivery system of information. As a bit of irony, it was the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act that ushered in MNL in the U.S. So where’s the education? There are good consumer web resources and programs offered by Health Canada and the U.S. FDA. Is that sufficient and are those agencies promoting themselves assertively enough as a competent authority in an OZ of competing nutrition wizards? They might want to think about stepping up that part of their game.
Gary Gnirss is a partner and president of Legal Suites Inc., specializing in regulatory software and services. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org