Building a better table

Will proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts table help shoppers eat healthier, or simply cause headaches for manufacturers?

We Canadians love to check labels.

Roughly 70% of us look at the “best before” date, ingredient list and Nutrition Facts table, according to a 2013 Canadian Foundation for Dietetic Research report.

But sometimes looking at labels isn’t enough, says Andrea Holwegner, a registered dietitian and founder of Health Stand Nutrition Consulting, in Calgary.

“We know people are reading more labels than ever before, but there is still a lot of confusion.”

Ottawa wants to change that. In its 2013 speech from the throne–and following on the heels of a similar initiative by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration–the federal government has pledged to improve how nutritional information is presented on food labels.

The result: a nationwide consultation process that started at the beginning of this year, and a subsequent report, called “What We Heard,” issued in June.

The report proposes some big changes to the look and layout of the Nutrition Facts table. (See table)

Among the suggestions: consistent serving sizes across similar food products, changes to the list of nutrients that must be declared, grouping together similar items on the ingredients list and changes to the way sugar content is presented on the label.

Listing added sugars would be a big deal, says Brooke Bulloch, owner of Food to Fit, a Saskatoon-based nutritional consulting firm.

“This is the most exciting change on the new labels,” she says. “We spend a lot of time with clients deciphering how much sugar is in the product, and is that sugar added.”

Added sugar is usually refined and tends to spike blood sugar levels, says Bulloch, and can lead to disease, such as Type 2 diabetes.

Dietitians are also happy about the modifications to serving sizes.

“It’s a huge issue,” says Holwegner. “People quickly grab products and cross compare without looking at serving sizes.”

Some manufacturers list one slice of bread as a serving, for example, whereas others list two slices. Still others list the serving size in grams.

“Grams is not a normal household measurement,” says Holwegner. “People don’t walk around carrying a scale.” The new table would have standardized serving sizes. As an example: bread could be two slices for all manufacturers.

Some people want more substantial changes to the layout of the label.

“It’s not a groundbreaking update,” says Sébastien Pierre, founder of FFunction, a Montreal- based data visualization studio that once developed its own graphic-heavy redesign of the nutritional information on a milk carton.

“Table layout is not the best if you want to take a quick look. Charts are much better at conveying a lot of information quickly.”

But the new label, he says, is still better than the old one. “It optimizes readability and updates the presented information.”

But while the changes might encourage healthier choices, they won’t come cheap for CPGs.

Phyllis Tanaka, senior advisor of food and nutrition for Food & Consumer Products of Canada, says it’s too soon to predict the cost to change nutritional facts on all packaged foods, but there will be a significant cost for manufacturers.

“What the dollar amount is, I don’t think anyone’s done the math yet,” she says. “In part, the work hasn’t been done because of the early stage the process is at.”

As for when the changes could come into effect, Health Minister Rona Ambrose may decide to push them through quickly. One industry source, though, says if they aren’t deemed to be of high voter priority, the Nutrition Facts table could be, well, tabled until after the election.

But dietitians want to see the changes soon.

“I’m very anxious to see these changes happen quickly,” says Margaret Young, a dietitian for Sobeys in P.E.I. “There have been public consultations, industry consultations, consultations with dietitians; it would be great to get it in the stores and on packages so people can start using them.”

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