Experts say Canada's Food Guide needs an update

NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen is calling for less industry input into what Canadians should eat, and more decisions made by experts.

Criticism of Canada's Food Guide calls for less industry input

Federal NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen says experts, not food industry representatives, should set guidelines for what Canadians eat. (Health Canada)

Canada's Food Guide is the foundation for meal planning in hospitals, schools and public health programs, but some critics say it is sorely in need of updating.

It started as Canada's Food Rules in 1942 but has been revised a handful of times over the years. The most recent updates were released in 2007.

That revision required years of consultations with doctors, nutritionists, researchers and the public. Those stakeholders also included industry representatives, from dairy producers to beverage corporations.

That type of industry inclusion is one of the main critiques raised by bariatric specialist Dr. Yoni Freedhoff. He spoke at a debate about Canada's Food Guide earlier this year, hosted by the Canadian Obesity Network.

"I think it's not just about people who literally work for the food industry, but also people whose labs are funded by the food industry or people who have received honoraria from the food industry," he said.

Health Canada officials have always maintained that industry stakeholders were consulted, but added that they had no influence in the composition of the actual guide, which is a product of nutrition experts.

That suggests that dairy producer associations, for example, didn't dictate the number of recommended daily milk servings in the Canada Food Guide.

But for federal NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen, the issue of perception can be problematic.

"When you're actually presenting a food guide to people who are going to then make food choices and use their purchasing power to make those choices, they have to have great faith in it," he said.

"They have to say, 'OK, when I go out to make these purchases based on the food guide, I know that my purchase is not being driven to a particular food group based on an industry.' That's why we wanted to make it as impartial as we possibly could."

The NDP's newly released food strategy is a document that addresses everything from farmers' issues to consumer labelling. It goes out of its way to point out that a new Canada's Food Guide would be developed by "independent experts."

But Allen said independence doesn't necessarily mean excluding industry stakeholders.

"I would invite them to round tables and allow them to talk to us about what is appropriate for a food guide," he explained.

"But I think at the end of the day, it has to be seen as an independent process. The final decisions have to be driven by independent groups," he added.

"You can't say the dairy group is actually healthy … so it's OK for them but it's not OK for you as a processed food maker, for instance. At the end of the day, you make your decisions based on independent input so that people have faith in the system."

A revised food guide, Allen added, would also promote more food literacy. For example, teenagers would have mandated food prep lessons and there would be a ban on food advertising geared toward kids.

For now, the Canada Food Guide is not slated for an overhaul.