8 proposed food labelling changes

12 September, 2014 , ,

Health Canada proposes to change food labelling. I’m sure you can imagine how huge this news must be for a dietitian! Given below is a summary of what I think are the most important changes, and my take on each of them.

1)      Harmonizing serving sizes by product category

Although some regulations already exist regarding serving sizes on products, the latter warrant some improvements. The proposed changes are seemingly based on “common sense”. We like it. For example, the nutritional value of sliced bread can currently be given for 1, 1 ½, 2 slices… It’s hard to compare products between them! With the change, all breads would display information for 2 slices, which is much simpler! Though it’s true that the weight of a slice changes from one brand to another, no one ever says: “I eat 94 grams of bread in the morning!”

2)      Highlighting calories more clearly

Yes, obesity is a public health issue. Yes, when you eat more calories than you need, you may put on weight. But if you ask me, it is unnecessary to highlight calories any more clearly and it might even harm consumers. We shouldn’t choose a food based on the calories it contains! Life would be so boring if that were the case! It makes more sense to know where the calories are coming from and what kinds of nutrients accompany them, something that the rest of the table does very well. So I really don’t see why this information should be given more importance than others, especially since I hear people compare, all too often for my liking, products based solely on calories…

3)      Differentiating between trans fat and saturated fat

This is a wise decision by Health Canada. The impact of saturated fat on health has been widely questioned for quite some time now. On the other hand, there is widespread consensus in the scientific community about the harmful effects of trans fat. In short, clubbing these fats in the same category is not consistent with scientific advances and Health Canada recognizes that.


4)      Singling out added sugars

Up until now, all sugars were listed together in the Nutrition Facts table. From now on, we’ll be able to see how much sugar comes from natural sugar and how much has been added. It will be especially interesting for certain items that contain dairy products or fruits, which are naturally high in sugar.

Although all forms of sugar affect our health in the exact same way, seeing the amount of sugar that has been added to a product is a good indicator of the nutritional value of the product. Usually, the more sugar we add, the less interesting the product becomes.

The other important point to bear in mind is that till date, Health Canada has considered 100% pure fruit juices, fruit juice concentrates and fruit purées to be sources of natural sugar. But if you ask me, when these ingredients are added to products, they should be regarded as added sugars instead. If the regulations don’t change, we may see a lot of products “naturally sweetened” with fruit juices, which would not be beneficial for consumers.

5)      Introducing a daily value for sugar

Maybe I’m being optimistic (or crazy), but I have the feeling that Health Canada has just made a huge announcement in the case of sugar, even if it is implicit. Let me explain.

Health Canada proposes to establish a daily total sugar value of 100 grams. Until now, no daily value had been prescribed for total sugars. Health Canada officially recommends that we should consume no more than 25% of our energy intake in the form of added sugars. This corresponds to 125 grams of added sugars for an “average person” who consumes 2,000 calories.

Personally, I always found this amount to be completely abnormal – and I’m not the only one – especially since the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends no more than 10% of energy intake in the form of added sugars and as it already plans to downgrade this value! This recommendation corresponds to 50 grams of added sugar for an “average person”.

If Health Canada decides to introduce a daily total sugar value of 100 grams, which corresponds to 20% of the energy intake for an “average person”, it is probably because they’ll subsequently decide to downgrade their recommendation and align themselves with the WHO, otherwise it wouldn’t make any sense! This would be an ENORMOUS step in the right direction for Health Canada.

6)      Forgetting about vitamin A and vitamin C and concentrating on vitamin D and potassium

Do you remember the last time you heard someone you know suffering from scurvy? No? Me neither, and it’s normal! In Canada, vitamin C (or vitamin A) deficiency is very rare. On the other hand, vitamin D, which plays a role in bone health, and potassium, which helps to prevent cardiovascular diseases are far more problematic nutrients. This is why Health Canada plans to make manufacturers include the content of these two nutrients. I believe it’s a good idea, as it will probably help consumers meet their needs!

That said, is it really necessary to add the amount in milligrams or micrograms for these vitamins and minerals? I’d say the daily value percentage is quite sufficient.

7)      Adding a note to explain the daily value percentage

Wouldn’t it be great if you had a dietitian at your beck and call to explain the Nutrition Facts table to you? Well, Health Canada has decided to opt for the second best solution instead and include a short and simple sentence at the bottom of the table to help make good choices.

Even if there are more accurate criteria for selecting “the best product” between different foods in the same category, a simple tip like this one will nevertheless allow us make right choices, especially if the new serving sizes actually adhere to reality, something which remains to be seen!

8)      Identifying added sugars more easily in the list of ingredients

I think this is one of my favourite changes! The fact that added sugars don’t really provide health benefits is being increasingly acknowledged! Until now, they could be found scattered across the list of ingredients. And since the ingredients are listed in descending order of weight in foods, it was in the interest of manufacturers to add different sources of sugar to conceal them in the list.

So Health Canada proposes to gather together all the sugars in the list of ingredients. This will make it easier for us to see the amount of sugar that makes up the product.

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Bernard Lavallée

Bernard Lavallée

Registered Dietitian, RD at nutritionnisteurbain.ca

Bernard Lavallée is a nutritionist and author of the blog Le Nutritioniste Urbain. Specialised in communication and popular science, he has worked at Extenso, where he is frequently asked to comment on news and trends in nutrition for various media, since 2011. His goal is to use all forms of communication to reach consumers.

Bernard Lavallée

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