Brazil’s revolutionary new food guide focuses on how food is made

Get back to cooking with fresh ingredients and avoid ultra-processed food for better health, say experts By Leora Eisen, director of Food for Thought

In 2019, Health Canada will release a new version of Canada’s Food Guide — the first revision of our national roadmap for healthy eating since 2007. It’s an important document, influencing the nutrition advice we get from doctors and dietitians, dictating the health curriculum in schools and even impacting what’s on the menu in public institutions like hospitals.

Brazil introduces a new, revolutionary food guide

In Food for Thought a documentary from The Nature of Things, we learn that Brazil’s new food guide, created in 2014, is considered a model for the world. It’s been endorsed by everyone from food guru Michael Pollan to the United Nations and is based on a radical yet surprisingly simple idea. Forget about categorizing diet by food groups, pyramids or nutrients. Don’t dwell on calories. Instead, focus on how food is made.

The Brazilian guide classifies food according to four levels of processing:

1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods (e.g. fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes, eggs, nuts)
2. Processed culinary ingredients (cooking ingredients, e.g. salt, butter, sugar, oils)
3. Processed foods (e.g. canned fruits and vegetables, cured meat)
4. Ultra-processed food and drink products

It urges people to avoid ultra-processed foods at all costs. These are the manufactured products that line aisle after aisle in your local supermarket: breakfast cereals; sweetened fruit juice and pop; packaged snacks like chips and cookies; heat-and-eat convenience foods like instant noodles; macaroni and cheese; and frozen pizza. These foods are loaded with unhealthy fats, sugar and sodium. There’s a reason they have a long shelf life: they’re filled with chemicals and preservatives.

Jean-Claude Moubarac in Brazil market

University of Montreal professor Jean-Claude Moubarac, who helped devise the Brazilian guidelines, says, “These are not real foods. These are formulations of industrial substances and additives, carefully selected to make a product that is durable, highly appealing and prone to overconsumption.”

Another aim of Brazil’s food guide is to avoid complicated food rules. “People don’t need to understand the difference between saturated fats and unsaturated fats,” notes one of the guide’s key creators, University of Sao Paulo public health expert Carlos Monteiro. Instead, the guide offers one golden rule: always choose natural or minimally processed foods and freshly made meals over ultra-processed foods.

It also warns consumers to be wary of the food industry’s marketing claims. “Manufacturers have convinced us that what goes on in the kitchen and what goes on in the factory are the same,” says Moubarac. “They are two different things.”

Guide stresses the importance of cooking with fresh ingredients

Moubarac is one of the experts Health Canada has consulted as it prepares our new policy. He hopes Canadians will realize, just as Brazil’s guide advises, that cooking with fresh ingredients can play a crucial role in improving health.

But is cooking from scratch realistic for working parents? Moubarac thinks so, stressing that he’s not suggesting women put on their aprons and return to their traditional role as sole keepers of the kitchen.

“This isn’t about nostalgia,” he insists. “Cooking is fundamental to humanity. It should be an activity for the entire family.” He believes if families make it a priority, even children can participate in shopping, planning menus and preparing meals.

According to Moubarac, only one in five Canadians cooks on a daily basis. We grab ready-to-eat convenience foods and order takeout, and as a result get nearly 50 per cent of our daily calories from ultra-processed products. For our kids, the statistics are even more alarming. Children from nine to 13, for one, get almost 60 per cent of their calories from ultra-processed food. “It’s a nutritional calamity,” says Moubarac, and the underlying reason why poor diet is now the number one risk factor for mortality

Nutritious food for children is a human right

In Brazil, providing nutritious food for children isn’t just a lofty goal — it’s a human right written into their constitution. Brazil’s public schools are mandated, by law, to serve freshly prepared meals, and the goal is to source at least 30 per cent of the produce they cook with from local family farmers. It’s a way to encourage economic and environmental sustainability while improving the health of at least 45 million children who eat at school every day.

Finally, the Brazilian guide advises people to sit down for meals with friends and family, to enjoy both the food and the experience. Despite their busy schedules, that’s what Moubarac and his wife try to do every day with their two young children. As they say in Brazil, bom apetite!

Watch Food for Thought on The Nature of Things.


Available on CBC Gem

The Nature of Things: Food for Thought

Nature of Things