The federal government is overhauling Canada's healthy eating guidelines with a sweeping strategy that will include new rules for marketing and labelling certain foods aimed at children.
Health Minister Jane Philpott said the "iconic" Canada Food Guide has not kept up with the country's changing demographics and lifestyles.
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"The classic one-size-fits-all guide no longer meets the needs of Canadians," she said in a Montreal speech.
Philpott said the guide must be "relevant and practical" and provide advice for Canadians whether they are shopping at the grocery store or looking at a restaurant menu. It must be individualized and adaptable for food preferences and sensitivities, she said.
Another change will eventually require labelling on the front of packages that will highlight if a product is high or low in certain nutrients such as sodium, sugar and saturated fats.
Protect children from marketing
In May 2010, the World Health Organization released recommendations on the marketing of food and beverages to children. It called on governments worldwide to reduce the exposure of children to advertising and to reduce the use of powerful marketing techniques employed by the manufacturers of foods and beverages high in saturated fats, trans-fat acids, free added sugars or sodium.
Today, Canada is acting on those recommendations, following the lead of Quebec, which already restricts marketing to children under the age of 13.
It will take anywhere from five to 10 years to implement the changes, after consultations with industry, stakeholders and the public.
The last food guide was criticized because it was based on much input from industry. Philpott said stakeholders will have a say in the process, but they will not dictate the results.
"I think it's only fair for the people who are selling food to be able to have opportunity to comment in terms of what the impact might be on them," she said.
"But they will not have impact on the advice given in the guide."
All meetings and correspondence between stakeholders and officials in her office will be transparent and made public, she said.
Conservative Senator Kelvin Ogilvie, who chaired a committee that carried out a sweeping study on obesity in Canada, welcomed the initiatives as "very encouraging." He called the plan to ensure the food industry remains at arm's length in the decision process "most heart-warming."
"It's a total conflict of interest," he told CBC News. "You simply can't have the people who make the greatest degree of money selling you any product, making a final recommendation to government as to how healthy that product is."
Informed food choices
A group representing the sector said the industry is already taking steps to encourage Canadians to make more informed, healthy food choices, and said it is "keen" to ensure further steps are taken.
"That said, this is an unprecedented amount of change that will require an unprecedented level of investment in an unprecedented time frame," said Joslyn Higginson, vice-president of public and regulatory affairs for the Food and Consumer Products of Canada, in a statement.
"This will change what's in our products, what's on our product packaging and how those products are marketed."
The food and beverage industry continues to face challenges with timely regulatory approvals and costs for reformulation and innovation. Outdated regulations mean it takes longer to bring new and reformulated products to market in Canada than in other countries.
"Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency must address lagging regulatory modernization quickly — before imposing new regulations," she said.
"It's the only way that food and beverage makers will be able to implement this scale and magnitude of change, and hope to remain competitive, much less grow and innovate."
Food guide consultation continues
Health Canada just completed a scientific review of the Canada Food Guide. It found that most of the science behind its recommendations was sound.
However the department found there were not enough distinctions between age groups, sex, activity levels, or height.
Consultations will wrap up Dec. 8, 2016. The guide was last updated in 2007, but it remains the most requested document at Health Canada.
Philpott said the Healthy Canada strategy has three pillars:
- Healthy eating, including the updated food guide and new labelling and marketing rules.
- Healthy living, including promotion of physical activity and fitness and new rules to deter smoking and vaping.
- Healthy minds, including new initiatives to improve mental health.
Elimination of trans fats to continue
The federal government asked industry to voluntarily eliminate trans fats in processed foods in 2007. No regulations were ever introduced by the previous Conservative government.
Many food manufacturers took them out of their products anyway, bowing to consumer demand. But some trans fats still exist in products, and Philpott said more action will be taken to eliminate them.
Sasha McNicoll, co-ordinator of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, urged the federal government to fund a school food program in every school in the country as a way to ensure kids are eating nutritious food.
She said the program would cost about $1 billion a year, and suggested the federal government kick in 20 per cent of the costs shared by the provinces, municipalities and civil society groups.
"It can improve their health and it can improve their education outcomes," she told CBC News. "An investment now can help children develop better eating habits into adulthood and that will hopefully save in health-care costs down the road."