The heat on Canada’s food guide
Canada’s senators, not the hockey team, have recently come out of the closet with their view of Canada’s Food Guide. The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology looked at the increasing incidence of obesity in Canada. The Senate report is the result of testimony presented between October 2014 and June 2015, under the previous Conservative parliament.
Since then, and under the new Liberal government, a Mandate Letter presented to the Minister of Health would, among other public health promotion initiatives, look at “introducing new restrictions on the commercial marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children, similar to those now in place in Quebec; bringing in tougher regulations to eliminate trans fats and to reduce salt in processed foods, similar to those in the United States; and improving food labels to give more information on added sugars and artificial dyes in processed foods.” The Ministers of Health and Indigenous and Northern Affairs are also mandated to improve the Nutrition North program. The Senate’s newfound love to hate obesity has marked Canada’s Food Guide in the crosshairs.
The Senate report is based on information presented by witnesses, which include very distinguished and respected individuals and organizations. The media has picked up on the report’s reference that several witnesses have suggested that, “Canada’s Food Guide has been at best ineffective, and at worst enabling, with respect to the rising levels of unhealthy weights and diet-related chronic diseases in Canada.” So is Canada’s Food Guide really that bad?
Obesity is a concern. Since 1980, obesity has been on the increase. There have also been three revisions to the Guide since then, which made its debut in 1942 (Canada’s Official Food Rules). A chief focus of discontent concerning the current 2007 Food Guide is its presumed silence on discouraging food choices that contain high amounts of sugars and very little of other healthful nutrition. In the spotlight are fruit juices, demonized along with carbonated soft drinks, as providing empty calories from sugar. Even orange juice, a source of vitamin C, is targeted as a “bad” sugary juice. The objection is that the food does not provide other significant nutritional benefits, like a bit of fibre that is present in whole orange. An orange, a “good” food, still provides a high proportion of calories from sugar. The point here is that it is not easy to differentiate between what foods, despite the sugar content, are good and which are not. Should the guide identify good and bad food, or continue providing guidance on simply making wise choices?
Another focus of the Senate report is on processed food, which is also demonized. The current Food Guide does not speak specifically on processed food. It does promote the selection of servings from the four food groups: vegetables and fruit, grain products, milk and alternatives, and meat and alternatives. It emphasizes, for example, the selection of at least half of one’s daily grain servings from whole grain, a less processed food. The guide does aim the selection at whole and less processed food, even though it does not arbitrarily disparage processed food. There are good food choices in the processed food category. This includes wheat flour, which under federal law must be fortified with vitamins and minerals. The guide at its best aims at wise food choices. Nutrition labelling provides additional information to ensure foods are consumed in moderation, regardless of what food group they are in.
The goal of the Food Guide is to provide consistent messaging to help Canadians select foods that provide adequate nutrition, while reducing the risk of diet-related chronic diseases. The number of serving suggestions are based on general daily caloric and nutrient content, for various age groups. Individuals have the responsibility of becoming informed and following healthy eating guidelines suited to them.
While the current Food Guide might benefit from perhaps simplifying and refocusing some of its messaging, it is really not that out of tune in providing sound dietary and lifestyle guidance. The number of suggested servings from each food group might also warrant some tweaking to ensure Canadians are on track with dietary goals. There is certainly no reason to label it as an enabling cause of obesity. That simply casts doubt on validity of Guide, at a time when Canadians should heed its advice more often. Health Canada will be conducting a more robust science based review of the Guide to see what changes might actually be warranted.
Gary Gnirss is a partner and president of Legal Suites Inc., specializing in regulatory software and services. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org