For the first time in Canada, food companies have been given authority to promote products as having cholesterol-lowering abilities.
Health Canada recently released a decision that food products fortified with plant sterols will be allowed to carry labels telling consumers they can help reduce cholesterol. Plant sterols occur naturally, in small amounts, in nuts, vegetable oils, whole grains and fruits and vegetables and seem to block absorption of cholesterol by the body.
It's considered a landmark conclusion in the realm of food health claims, a tightly regulated and much sought after designation under Health Canada's control. Some industry observers say it signals an important shift that could clear the way for a major increase in approval of new health claims.
"It does open the floodgates for other products," said Peter Jones, director of the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals at the University of Manitoba. "I think we're heralding a new era now in Canada."
And it means Canadians will likely soon see a variety of foods boasting the inclusion of plant sterols pop up on store shelves, in addition to products fortified with omega-3 fatty acids, probiotic cultures or vitamin D and calcium.
In fact, the first sterol-fortified food has already hit grocery stores. Unilever Canada announced Thursday its Becel pro.activ calorie-reduced margarine is available in Canada, making it the first food product to make a health claim about plant sterols.
Health claims are considered lucrative by the food industry because it allows companies to explicitly point out a product's nutritional benefits to consumers. That distinction has become increasingly important as society shifts toward greater health consciousness.
In Canada, food companies are permitted to make health claims pointing out the relationship between a low-sodium, high-potassium diet and reduced risk of high blood pressure; a healthy diet with adequate calcium and vitamin D and reduced risk of osteoporosis; a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and the reduced risk of certain types of cancer, as well as others.
While other countries, notably the United States, allow food companies to make a wide variety of health claims about various food products, Health Canada has traditionally been more conservative, allowing only a few health claims to be made and being judicious with granting approval to companies who want to make such claims.
The food industry has for years complained about the restrictive nature of the health claims process and argues that Canada lags far behind other countries where companies have more freedom to woo consumers with claims their products can help prevent cancer or reduce the risk of heart disease.
But the growing importance of health claims has also created a greater need to protect consumers from misleading or inaccurate statements that could wrongly persuade a consumer to believe a food that's high in fat or sodium is good for them simply because it has a health claim on the label.
Last month, the Institute of Medicine, a U.S.-based organization that provides scientific advice used to form policy, called for greater scrutiny of health claims used on food. The institute said food agencies should apply the same level of scrutiny to health claims as it does to drug products, the report said.
Dr. Jones, who works as a paid consultant to food companies, including Unilever, which sells Becel, said the food industry's exploding interest in health claims does call for scrutiny, but that it shouldn't squelch the ability of companies to make such claims.
"Just because there's a possibility that some bad guys would enter the market doesn't mean you don't go there," he said. "I think we do need to police the whole category and ensure we don't see snake oil appear."Report Typo/Error