Howard Selig fondly remembers the first time he brought a copy of Canada's Food Guide home from school. ''It was such a colourful thing. It had lots of pictures of fruits and vegetables. I guess it had an impact on me from an early age.''
He was 7.
Mr. Selig grew up to become an award-winning chef and nutrition expert who produces flax flour in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley. Now 52, he still makes good use of that "colourful thing."
"If I have a cooking class," he says, "I always provide Canada's Food Guide. If I am giving a talk to a weight-loss group, I always provide Canada's Food Guide, as a basic healthy-eating guideline."
Such thinking has made a national icon of a publication that first appeared in 1942 to help people cope with wartime rationing. Six decades later, Health Canada is in the midst of revising the guide for the first time since 1992, but the exercise had led to a chow row over just what those revisions should be.
Refreshments Canada, a lobby group for big producers such as Pepsi and Coke, wants to avoid any distinction between "good foods" and "bad foods," so soft drinks can be considered "indulgence" foods.
The Tea Association wants its brew seen as part of a healthy diet.
Consumption is down, so the struggling beef industry is lobbying for a stronger focus on meat.
The Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council, fearing the guide will take a dim view of packaged and restaurant foods, warns that it "should remain a tool for healthy nutrition and not become a vehicle for socio-economic values."
Kellogg Canada has a few thoughts it wants to share on what constitutes a proper "serving size."
It is just one slim sheet of paper with some tips on how much people should eat, along with the four famous food "groups" arrayed like a rainbow. But sustenance is a $60-billion-a-year industry in Canada. Clearly, there's a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.
Every year, more than two million copies of Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating are distributed, making it second only to the income-tax form as the most requested federal document.
Updating it is a four-year process, and the new version isn't expected until next year, but the fierceness of the debate over what information should be changed and which foods should be added or dropped has already raised concerns.
"I have to say it's a major challenge that our government is facing in trying to come out with a document that's going to please everybody . . . ," says Vancouver dietitian Sydney Massey, who runs education programs for the B.C. Dairy Foundation.
"I've worked with the dairy foundation since 1981, and at no other time in my career has attention to food and what we eat been this high."
The stakes are enormous. The low-carbohydrate craze, driven mainly by the popularity of the Atkins Diet, has pummelled the bottom lines of many companies and left them scrambling to change how they do business.
Products once relegated to health-food stores, such as soy milk, veggie burgers and tofu, have now gone mainstream. In fact, total spending on low-carb offerings is expected to double in the United States to more than $36-billion this year compared with last year.
So companies believe that where and how their products fit into the food guide is more important than ever.
For example, about 70 per cent of McDonald's customers in the United States now buy health-conscious items even though they are more expensive. Last week, the company announced a "consumer wellness campaign" that includes a new fruit salad and a fitness challenge. And McDonald's Canada was quick to note that all of its salads meet the food guide's standard for vegetable servings.
Appearing on the guide, or having its prominence increased, also can help a product become part of a school lunch program or included in other healthy-food lists such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation's Health Check program. All of that, of course, can translate into more sales.
And so the Health Canada review has generated big interest from many industry players. More than 100 businesses, including such giants as Kellogg Canada Inc., as well as industry organizations are taking part. Many have submitted lengthy briefs criticizing the inclusion of one food while pointing out the importance of adding another.
"This guide was basically designed to represent the interests of agricultural-commodity groups," contends Sean McPhee, president of the Vegetable Oil Industry of Canada, which represents 95,000 oilseed growers and large processors such as Canbra Foods, Cargill Limited and Unilever Canada.
He argues that the guide reflects outdated eating trends and is biased toward milk, grain products and meat, which largely contain saturated or animal-based fats that he contends are not as healthy as plant-based fats.
Mr. McPhee says that "the dairy lobby is one of the most powerful lobby groups in the country." His organization wants to see the guide add a special category for vegetable-oil products -- and expand its milk-products section to include alternatives such as calcium-fortified soy beverages.
He acknowledges that this would give his $10-billion industry a boost, but he insists that its products deserve to be better represented. "It just so happens that our interests align with the current state of nutrition science."
Dairy groups have shot back with recommendations of their own, warning Health Canada to avoid "milk bashing."
In a submission to the department, the Dairy Farmers of Canada stresses that milk consumption is falling because of misinformation and misconceptions. It not only opposes including other beverages, it wants the guide to encourage greater milk consumption.
"The fortification of fruit juices with calcium (and maybe vitamin D) does not substitute for milk for growing children and adolescents," the dairy submission argues. "Therefore, it is unclear why Health Canada would even consider the addition of calcium-fortified fruit juices to the milk products group."
If the fortified juices are included, they ask, "can we add milk beverage, fortified with vitamin C, to the vegetables and fruit food group?"
This spring, Health Canada is to meet with industry groups to discuss some of the proposed changes. The department is well aware of concerns that the review may be influenced by corporate interests, an issue that came up in 1992 when critics said that industry pressure had led Ottawa to increase the serving sizes of eggs and meat.
An internal document obtained by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin warns that "although any proposed changes to the guide would be grounded in the latest science, some could be viewed as resulting in business loss (or viewed as lost opportunity) and may prompt a wave of comments and/or criticism."
Many nutritional experts agree.
Hélène Charlebois, a dietitian in Ottawa, attended a Health Canada information session last year to discuss the review and says the gathering was dominated by business reps.
"I was quite shocked by this; it was all food industry," she recalls. "Everybody is trying to get their own product on the front line, everybody is pushing."
Industry considerations are important, Ms. Charlebois says, but the guide also must reflect changing demographics and eating habits -- and it should promote healthy eating without encouraging obesity.
And yet the industry campaigning can be intense, says Vesanto Melina, a dietitian based in Langley, B.C. "If their pork chop isn't big enough on the picture, they are in there lobbying for the size of the image."
Ms. Melina specializes in vegetarian nutrition, and says the guide should reflect a broader mix of food groups because so many Canadians are looking for alternatives to meat and milk products. "To be leaving that off the food guide is really withholding information that is important for a lot of people."
Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator for the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health-advocacy group, wants to go further and give Canadians blunt instructions about what they should and should not eat.
"In the past, the food guide sort of bought into this philosophy that there are no good or bad foods, everything in moderation and a balanced diet -- and all these types of slogans that really don't mean much to a lot of Canadians," he says.
Instead, Mr. Jeffery suggests, it should tell people to eat less cheese, beef, pork and other products high in trans fat or saturated fat; to avoid most processed and restaurant foods that are high in salt, and to consume fewer soft drinks.
Other experts want to see several food guides, each targeted to a different segment of the population, such as children, pregnant women, elderly people and ethnic groups.
The debate may be heated at times, but the official who is overseeing the review welcomes it.
"I like to think of it as really quite energizing," says Mary Bush, director-general of the office of nutrition policy and promotion at Health Canada. "Healthy eating and nutrition play a significant role in the prevention of chronic disease and in healthy human growth and development."
The lobbying is intense, she says, but in the end any changes will be based on proper nutrition.
"You want to be careful that you have given due diligence and due consideration" to all the evidence and points of view, Ms. Bush explains. "But you are not putting a guide together because you are worrying about whether or not somebody is going to have a market for product X."
Industry groups aren't the only players, she adds. Health Canada is also receiving input from a 12-member advisory committee representing both the public and private sectors. There's also an inter-departmental committee within the federal government studying the issues. In the end, all of the information will be used by Health Canada to come up with a new guide.
The revisions, she notes, also come in the wake of recent updates to the "Dietary Reference Intakes," an array of nutrient values set by scientists in Canada and the United States. The challenge of the food guide is to put that scientific data into practical use.
The guide's philosophy shifted in 1992, Ms. Bush notes, to a "total diet" approach that recognizes different people need different amounts of food. However, more changes are needed. For example, the "serving size" recommendations are not clear for many people, and the "other foods" category is too broad.
She also recognizes that the food supply has changed, and many products, such as fortified soy beverages, were not available in 1992. "Clearly, once you have an evolution in your food supply, you have to evolve the food guide to catch up."
For people such as Glendora Boland, a public-health worker in St. John's, greater relevance is critical.
The food guide is "one of most essential tools we use in public health," said Ms. Boland, who runs nutrition programs for school children and low-income families.
"For those of us who work in the community and work in schools, it helps us to simplify things for people so they can translate it into food. . . . They just want to know, 'What is it that I am supposed to eat?' "
In other words, they want a food guide that can captivate and inspire a seven-year-old, just as it once did young Howard Selig.
Paul Waldie is a senior writer with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business.
Kidney once a week
The food guide has undergone several revisions since it first appeared 63 years ago. Here are the highlights of its evolution:
1942: Canada's Official Food Rules are introduced to help Canadians then at war maximize nutrition in the face of food rationing and poverty. There are six food groups: milk, fruits, vegetables, cereals and bread, meat and fish, eggs. Recommendations include drinking a half-pint of milk a day for adults (a full pint for children) and eating liver, kidney and heart at least once a week.
1944: The name changes to Canada's Food Rules, the "eggs" group is dropped, the recommended daily intake of milk rises and, because of supply shortages, eating kidney and heart is discontinued.
1961: To soften the approach, the name becomes Canada's Food Guide, food choices are broadened and the four groups are arranged in colour bands.
1977: With the combination of fruits and vegetables, the number of groups falls again, to four, and they are displayed in a wheel rotating around a smiling sun. Ranges are added to serving sizes, which are converted into metric measurements. The names of the groups also are modified to include "milk products" and "meat alternatives." And the government introduces the Food Guide Handbook to provide more extensive nutritional information.
1982: The guide is modified in response to a landmark report on diet and cardiovascular disease. It now includes a "moderation statement" encouraging Canadians to limit fat, sugar, salt and alcohol.
1992: There's another new name, Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating, and a new look -- the famous rainbow. The four groups are basically the same but have new names: grain products, vegetables and fruit, milk products, meat and alternatives. The guide is developed after consultation with a wide variety of groups including industry and it reflects a new "total diet approach" with more food selections and information about different energy needs for different people. A 16-page handbook is also developed along with 11 fact sheets for schools.