The eternal battle between good and bad foods has seen the teeter shift recently in Canada with the publication of final rules on front of package (FOP) nutrition labelling. Products entering the stream of commerce on January 1, 2026, must, if applicable, be with the appropriate FOP symbol. There is no incentive to engage in FOP labelling currently, and no one wants to be first out of the gate with these symbols. Many manufacturers are also considering reformulation, where possible, to avoid FOP.
Health Canada has said the purpose of FOP is not to scare, but alert consumers about the level of sugar, saturated fat, and sodium in a food. However, consumers are more likely to perceive these foods as ‘bad’ and avoid them. The new rules do not prohibit foods with FOP symbols from making nutrient content or health claims but there are restrictions and prohibitions on claims related to sugar, sodium and/or saturated fat. However, the rules protect an FOP symbol as a prominent first impression. In my experience, first impressions usually prevail.
If a food label bears an FOP symbol, then foods that do not, must be ‘good’. Of course, this logic is also failed. Corn starch will not need an FOP, but how ‘good’ is it? Perhaps the more important question is what foods are ‘good’ for you. Health Canada’s reasoning tends to be that all foods, including those with FOP symbols, are ‘good’ when consumed as part of a healthy diet.
Canada’s Food Guide, as amended in 2019, is simplistically beautiful. It’s like what mom said: “Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and protein, choose whole grain foods and drink water”. It is not easy, however, to use the 2019 food guide for labelling and advertising purposes, as it has moved away from recommended healthy eating serving sizes. That is not a terrible thing, but it creates a void for food marketers who must ensure all claims on a label or in advertising are truthful. A food label may provide messaging consistent with Canada’s Food Guide. If that message suggests eating more vegetables and fruits, how much vegetable or fruit content would be expected in that product? Is a bit of cauliflower dust enough? When a label or advertisement of a food suggests eating more protein foods as part of healthy diet, that would trigger the food to meet the conditions to be claimed as a “source of protein”. Those conditions involve both the quantity and quality of the protein source. The latter requirement is very demanding, so much so that it may disqualify some protein foods from being claimed as a source.
Despite these complications, we do not want to go back to the days of recommended serving sizes. That was also awkward for food labelling purposes, as those were recommended servings whereas for nutrition labelling purposes, reference amount represent quantities that Canadians actually eat. Dietary recommendations consistent with Canada’s Food Guide are classified as a type of health claim. Similar ‘healthy’ claims in the U.S. are considered implied nutrient content claim.
An interesting development in the U.S. was the recent proposal to amend the criteria for ‘healthy’ claims. The proposal sets minimum quantitative criteria for a food to be claimed ‘healthy’. It also includes disqualifying nutrient levels for added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. For instance, a grain product may be claimed to be ‘healthy’ if it contains at least 3/4 oz equivalent of whole grain, contains zero per cent of the DV for added sugars, no more than 10 per cent of the DV for sodium and five per cent of saturated fat. The criteria are based on U.S. reference amounts, so would then be consistent with nutrition labelling.
Now that Canada has finalized rules on CFIA’s FPI (food product innovation), Health Canada’s FOP and supplemented food regulations, perhaps there is a window of opportunity to do something similar to what is being proposed in the U.S. It may be time to migrate ‘healthy’ as an implied nutrient content in Canada as well, and have that criteria tethered on a more predictable and communicable manner with Canada’s Food Guide. The government’s healthy eating strategies should consider balancing of steering consumers both away from and toward suitable foods. The raison d’être of health and nutrient content claims is hinged on them being the ‘carrot’ to steer consumers toward healthy eating. The government first prohibits such claims and then only permits those they want. Perhaps it is time for a new healthy ‘carrot’.
Gary Gnirss is a partner and president of Legal Suites Inc., specializing in regulatory software and services. Contact him at email@example.com.
This column was originally published in the November/December 2022 issue of Food in Canada.
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