The new Canada’s Food Guide, with its focus on plant-based eating, is more affordable for the average family to follow than the previous guide – but with important caveats – according to a new study.
After Health Canada released its new guide earlier this year, some of the most pointed criticisms have been over the question of affordability, and whether a diet made up of half fruits and vegetables is accessible for everyone. The new study, conducted by researchers at Dalhousie University and the University of Guelph and released Thursday, appears to dispel these concerns – with conditions, including that cost-savings may be short-lived.
In a comparison between the 2007 food guide and the 2019 one, researchers found that the average family of four will save 6.8 per cent – or about $1.90 a day – with the new guide, said lead author Sylvain Charlebois, the senior director of the Agrifood Analytics Lab at Dalhousie.
The findings are based on average retail prices for food as determined by Statistics Canada. The selection of food products used in calculating cost were made by a nutritionist, who tried a number of combinations with consistent results, Prof. Charlebois said.
Still, he emphasized that the finding is based on a number of important conditions.
For one, it’s based on the assumption that every single meal is prepared and eaten at home – something that Prof. Charlebois acknowledged is not realistic for many families.
It’s also based on an assumption that none of the food is wasted. Fresh fruits and vegetables are the most-commonly wasted food category in average Canadian households.
With these caveats in mind, Prof. Charlebois said that criticisms about the affordability of the new guide remain relevant. In fact, 26 per cent of respondents in the new study, which also included a survey component, cited affordability as a barrier they face in adopting the recommendations of the new guide.
“I don’t think they got it wrong,” he said. “If you cook every day, you’re careful with how you manage inventory and you buy what you need on a daily basis, you will save money. But that’s an ideal. It’s almost impossible.”
The researchers also conducted forecasting on future prices and found that within two years, demand for plant-based protein and fresh fruits and vegetables could increase to the point where the price difference would be eliminated. In that case, the reverse could become true, and following the new guide could become more expensive.
In a statement, Health Canada spokesman Geoffroy Legault-Thivierge said cost was a consideration in creating the new guide.
As such, he said, “we recommend a variety of healthy options, which can include fresh, frozen, dried and canned foods. Health Canada also recognizes that the food guide is one part of a comprehensive approach to supporting healthy eating. Addressing the determinants of health and reducing health inequities are required to help Canadians make healthy food choices that align with the food guide.”
Kate Comeau, a spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada, called the survey results on affordability “encouraging,” though she added she hadn’t yet had a chance to go through the detailed methodology.
She said that the survey underscores the importance of creating food policy that considers all of the interrelated issues.
“When we look at food policy in Canada, it’s important to balance factors such as health, the economy, environmental factors and the affordability and availability of food,” she said.
The survey was conducted in February – within weeks of the new guide’s launch – and also looked at awareness among Canadians about the new guide and its recommendations. The new guide was released to great fanfare by the federal government and received widespread media attention.
An overwhelming majority of respondents (91 per cent) said they were aware that Canada has a food guide, and 74 per cent said they were aware that a new version had been released. Canada’s Food Guide is typically circulated among school-age children, at doctors’ and nutritionists’ offices, and public institutions across the country.
But in order of priority of how Canadians get their nutrition advice, the guide ranked in sixth place – behind family and friends, social media, and TV programs.
This was especially pronounced with younger groups, who ranked celebrities and social media ahead of Canada’s Food Guide in its sources of nutritional information.
“Imagine,” said Prof. Charlebois. “Gwyneth Paltrow has the upper hand when it comes to helping younger consumers in how to eat better than the guide.”