Is Health Canada biting off more than it can chew?

Canadians have been waiting for a food strategy for decades, until now. Health Canada has announced that it intends to completely overhaul food labeling regulations as well as its iconic, very colourful food guide. Protecting children and encouraging healthy lifestyles seem to be at the core what is being proposed. The process may take up to 10 years, perhaps even more. This focus on protecting our society’s most vulnerable while providing healthy choices is noble and indeed long overdue. Nonetheless, one must wonder how far public legislators should go and how much of our consumers’ freedom of choice will be left, once all is said and done.

This new initiative encompasses every recent issue connected to nutrition: The food guide itself, saturated fats, sodium, sugar, everything. It is likely one of the most ambitious policy-driven initiatives Canadians have seen in over 50 years. The strategy is comprehensive and audacious -- perhaps too audacious. Over time, the broadness of the project can only result in a relatively short list of successes, accompanied by a much longer list of failures.

Canada’s food guide has been around since 1942 and has seen very little significant change since. The latest version was introduced in 2007 with minor, insignificant changes and offered a cookie-cutter approach, designed to fit any demographic. In the face of more immigration, diversity and non-traditional lifestyles, the food guide has been obsolete for decades. A new food guide should not only be immune to industrial entanglements, but should also showcase ways of consuming and celebrating foods. Food traditions among First Nations, French Canadians and other communities should be captured in the guide as it should become a vehicle to share the diverse culinary values found amongst different groups of the population. Many countries from around the world have made the leap to encourage their citizens to eat the food found in certain environments. When dealing with food, context is key. How and where food is consumed is equally as important as what is consumed. We may end up with a modernized food guide in just a few years’ time. Let’s hope that the era of encouraging the mature adult to drink milk, for example, is long gone.

An ingredient-focused campaign has merit, but some battles will be easier to win than others. Trans fats will be experiencing a slow but very predictable death. At the time that Canada made it mandatory to include trans fats on nutrition labels --incidentally only the second country in the world to do so, after Denmark--many products were shown to contain trans fats. Through research and development, trans fats have now completely disappeared from store shelves. A ban on trans fats at this point would only be redundant.

As for tackling sodium, dealings with industry will be challenging. We now have a nation of sodium addicts. The average Canadian consumes over 3400 milligrams of sodium a day, more than twice the daily needed intake. Many companies have tried to reduce sodium content in soups, sauces and many other products, but in vain. A public strategy can set a new benchmark for standards, and most important, for tastes. It is possible to change the public’s taste for the better, over time. Current sodium levels in many food products are a menace to many Canadians. Incremental changes can allow industry to develop and distribute healthier products with more confidence, when there is a level playing field.

Sugar is public enemy number one and we all know how much governments strive to pinpoint societal menaces to protect consumers from themselves. Sugar, as it were, is now what tobacco used to be a few decades ago. More than 70% of all processed products sold in Canada have added sugar. A whopping 70%, and most Canadians aren’t even aware of this. Raising awareness about added sugar is a serious issue that warrants immediate attention. In the end, labels must be easily and quickly understood by most people. Clear labelling is the most practical tool that any government has to effectively communicate risks to consumers. But tackling the sugar issue head-on, knowing that many products are manufactured outside of our borders, is going to be difficult. The same goes for sodium. If laws become too strict in Canada, many multinationals may end up forfeiting the Canadian market altogether. With new, protectionist policies, there is a real possibility of triggering higher food prices.

Marketing to children is also on the hit list and presents another contentious aspect of this roadmap. It suggests that Health Canada wants to be the caretaker of a moralistic state. The existing Quebec law regarding marketing to children is ineffective, since most children are exposed to advertising coming from outside of the province. In fact, the childhood obesity rate in Quebec has gone up 3% since the province implemented a ban on targeted marketing campaigns. The 2010 WHO report suggested that advertising to children was a questionable issue, as it is always challenging to identify an exact cause for higher consumption of unhealthy products. The most effective guarantors of children’s healthy diets are parents, full stop. Children with unhealthy lifestyles have likely learned these habits from their parents. Education is key, and many studies suggest that lifelong learning is a powerful tool in fighting obesity.

But the biggest challenge to this nutrition initiative is the timeframe that has been set. Governments come and go, and this one will be no different. The process of implementing these reforms will likely be influenced by election deadlines, economic cycles and unforeseen events which often derail what are perceived as not-so-essential initiatives, such as this one. A few quick victories like publishing the new Food Guide and the tackling of the trans fats issue before the next election will make a difference. An overly broad and aggressive campaign can only lead to failure on all fronts.

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