Health Canada's proposed changes to the guidelines for nutrition information on packaged foods are getting a generally positive response from nutritionists and nutrition experts.

Health Minister Rona Ambrose unveiled the proposal Monday in Edmonton, saying that she's "worried about the rising rates of childhood obesity and of chronic disease."

The changes Ambrose wants to see include:

  • A separate line for added sugars on the nutrition facts table.
  • Grouping all sugars in the list of ingredients.
  • Requiring that vitamin D and potassium appear in the table, while dropping the requirement to include vitamins A and C.
  • Consistent serving sizes provided in the table
  • Changes to the order and information about the per cent of daily values in the table.

The changes reflect a similar proposal earlier this year by the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S.

Adding 'added sugars' to the label

For nutritionists, perhaps the biggest changes involve sugar.

Health Canada defines added sugars as "sugars and syrups that are added to foods during processing or preparation." That includes fruit juice concentrates and other "naturally occurring sugars that are isolated from a whole food and concentrated so that sugar is the primary component."

The World Health Organization has recommended including concentrated fruit juice and concentrated fruit as added sugars. In March, WHO also recommended that people limit their daily sugar intake to below five per cent of their daily caloric intake while stating that 10 per cent, their prior recommendation, is also good.

Including the amount of added sugars in the nutrition facts table is also consistent with the recommendation in Canada's Food Guide to limit consumption of foods and beverages that are high in sugar.

About 80 per cent of the packaged foods sold in Canada and the U.S. contain added sugar.

For Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, including "added sugars and a target to aim under are a lovely thing."

He says, "Added sugar gives people an idea of what's going on as far as the engineering of the product goes," noting that, "added sugar being higher is a surrogate marker for greater food processing, which in turn might have implications for health."

Yoni Freedhoff

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff says Health Canada's proposed changes are 'formative and useful improvements to our food labels.' (CBC)

Freedhoff founded the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa, a nutrition and weight management centre. He is also the author of a new book, The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work, and teaches at the University of Ottawa.

Freedhoff argues that the food industry utilizes added sugars "to make foods hyper-palatable, to make the 'bet you can't eat just one' phenomena physiologically real." He says most Canadians need to reduce their consumption of added sugars and the way to do that is to reduce consumption of highly processed foods.

Montreal-based registered dietitian Kate Comeau likes the proposal to group all types of sugars in the list of ingredients as a way of "more accurately depicting how much sugar is in a product." Comeau is the spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada.

Grouping the sugars should move sugars nearer the beginning of the list, which gives the ingredients from most to least.

Vitamin D and potassium getting attention

In an email to CBC News, Health Canada's Judith Gadbois-St-Cyr writes "Vitamin D is a nutrient of public health concern because of (1) the high prevalence of inadequate intakes, (2) insufficient blood levels in about 20 per cent of the population, and (3) the prevalence of osteoporosis in Canada."

She identified potassium as "a nutrient of high public health concern in Canada, as in the U.S., given (1) probable low prevalence of adequate intakes, and (2) high prevalence of hypertension in the general Canadian population."

So Health Canada proposes to require manufacturers to list vitamin D and potassium amounts on their packaged food label, a move both Freedhoff and Comeau support.

Comeau says potassium levels in packaged foods have already been increasing, due to efforts to lower sodium and its use as a preservative. "That isn't a bad thing for a lot of Canadians, but for certain groups of Canadians, for example, patients with renal failure, this is a concern," she notes.

Health Canada is also proposing that listing the amounts of vitamins A and C no longer be mandatory. Comeau says that dietitians want Canadians to get those two vitamins from fruits and vegetables, "so seeing them being removed from the label is not a concern."

Freedhoff argues that vitamins A and C levels are not problems in Canada and that they are less important than vitamin D and potassium today. He does note that adding the percentage of the daily value of these nutrients, "opens the door for sales on that basis and that's always worrisome. There may well people who think that's a healthy choice for their children when it's not."

He does concede that "that sort of marketing will be amplified whichever nutrients we put on the packages."

Wanted: Serving size consistency

Kate Comeau

Dietitian Kate Comeau says when it comes to Canada's nutrition facts tables, the most important thing is consistency. (Emily Bell)

In prior consultations on nutrition labels by Health Canada, the top complaint was about serving size inconsistency, which makes it difficult for them to compare products.

The department wants manufacturers to "more closely align serving sizes on labels with the 'reference amount,' which represents the amount of food the average Canadian typically eats at one sitting."

Comeau says, "for dietitians, the most important thing is consistency," so they ought to like this proposal.

Freedhoff would like to see the label also include a total calorie count for the whole package, since with sweet drinks and potato chips, for example, frequently it's the whole package that gets consumed.

Less on top, more on the bottom

Health Canada proposes to group in the upper part of the nutrition facts label, nutrients "that Canadians may want less of, and...  in the lower part of the table are the nutrients that Canadians may want more of."

The meaning of the per cent of daily value (DV) that's listed beside those nutrients will also be made more meaningful by adding a footnote to the table stating that "5 per cent DV or less is a little, 15 per cent DV or more is a lot."

Comeau says people do use the daily values on the labels, citing a recent survey that found seven out of 10 Canadians do look at the nutrition information on food labels to help them make food choices.

Online public consultations run until Sept. 11.

Nutrition Facts label

Health Canada's proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts label aim to provide more information about sugars and other nutrients. (Health Canada)