Nutrition labels on packaged foods to change: Health Canada

The overhaul of nutrition labels on packaged foods in Canada aims to make the information easier for consumers to understand.
Under amendments announced Wednesday to Canada's food and drug regulations, sugars in the future will be grouped together on packaged foods. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

The overhaul of nutrition labels on packaged foods in Canada aims to make the information easier to understand for consumers. But some nutrition experts say the changes don't go far enough. 

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott announced Wednesday amendments to the Food and Drug Regulations related to the list of ingredients and nutrition facts table — the information boxes on the back of food products.

Health Canada said the strategy aims to make healthy food choices easy, for example, by having the food industry:

  • Reduce sodium in processed foods.
  • Eliminate industrially produced trans fats.
  • Provide more information about sugars and food colours.
  • Introduce restrictions on the commercial marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children.

Sugar-based ingredients (like glucose-fructose, honey, malted barley or fancy molasses) will be grouped under the name "sugars" in the list of ingredients.

Since ingredients are listed from those most to least present in food, this means people could have an easier time determining how much sugar is in a product.

But some nutrition experts had hoped Health Canada would go further by showing the amount of added sugar in food — sugars and syrups added to foods and beverages. This is different from total sugars, which refers to those naturally found in whole fruits, vegetables and dairy products.

Added sugars are a signal of greater food processing, which has health implications including associations with weight gain and high blood pressure.

The new labels will also use the per cent daily value (%DV). Dietitians say five per cent signals a little, while 15 per cent is a lot.

David Hammond, a professor with the School of Public Health and Health Systems at Ontario's University of Waterloo, said consumers will welcome more information on sugars.

"However, there is a missed opportunity to highlight 'added' or 'free sugar' amounts in foods, particularly with respect to the per cent daily value information," Hammond said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed to change nutrition labels in 2015 to declare added sugars on nutrition labels.

5-year transition period

Guidelines from the World Health Organization recommend that people limit their sugar intake to below five per cent of their daily caloric intake while stating that 10 per cent, the prior recommendation, is also good.

The food industry has until 2021 to make the changes.

"This is an unnecessary long horizon for industry implementation, particularly given that the changes are modest in scope," Hammond said. 

Alfred Aziz, chief of the nutritional sciences bureau at Health Canada, told reporters that the five-year transition period is meant to allow small businesses to make the changes.

"We have to remember that the changes that we are putting forward impact not only the nutrition facts table, but the list of ingredients, so these are significant changes to the way food information on the food labels appears and to also account for additional changes that might come forward," Aziz said.

Those potential changes include updates to the front of packages and label modernizations from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Consultation on the front-of-package changes will be open until Jan. 13.


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