The federal government wants to make it easier for consumers to choose healthy foods with front-of-package warnings on items that contain high levels of sodium, sugar or saturated fat.
High intake of those three ingredients is linked to chronic health conditions and diseases, including obesity, heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
Currently, consumers must check the nutrition facts table on the back of packages to see the sugar, sodium and saturated fat content.
Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor is proposing to make it easier for consumers to identify foods high in those ingredients by requiring standardized, prominent warning symbols on the front of food packages.
Foods high in one or more of the three ingredients but which are nevertheless considered beneficial to health will be exempted. That includes whole and two-per-cent milk (but not chocolate milk), most vegetable oils and fruits and vegetables without added saturated fat, sugars or sodium.
Foods such as raw single-ingredient meats and those sold at farmers' markets will also be exempted, as will foods on which a warning symbol would be redundant, such as table sugar and salt, honey and maple syrup.
Health Canada is asking for public feedback on four possible symbols, which would be displayed in the upper quadrant of a package label, or the right quadrant when the package is wider than it is tall.
Public consultation on the symbols and proposed regulations will run until April 26.
Once the regulations are enacted, food manufacturers will have until December 2022 to comply with the new packaging requirements.
Health Canada estimates that about half of all food packages will require the new warning symbols, although that number could shrink if manufacturers use the transition period to decrease the levels of sodium, sugar and saturated fat in their products.
The warning symbols will be required on foods that meet or exceed proposed thresholds.
For pre-packaged foods and foods intended solely for children between the ages of one and four, the proposed threshold is 15 per cent of the recommended daily amount of each of the three ingredients. For pre-packaged meals, the threshold rises to 30%.
The government is also planning to amend regulations governing nutrient content claims, such as "no sugar added." Officials say doing so would ensure, for example, that consumers are not confused by a claim that no sugar has been added to fruit juice, for instance, which is naturally high in sugar and would therefore require a warning symbol.