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The federal government is in the midst of implementing a flurry of measures to help consumers navigate the confusing world of food labels and nutritional information. Many of the proposals, such as a ban on trans fats and the marketing of unhealthy food to children, were campaign promises made by the Liberals last year – and represent a major change in direction from the Conservative era, when those files were left to collect dust.

Now, the government has some decisions to make. Will it commit to the big changes needed to arm Canadians with information to wade through the sea of marketing messages that often disguise unhealthy foods? Or will they enact a series of half-measures that satisfy the food industry but keeps consumers in the dark?

Some nutrition experts and advocates are concerned about the direction the government will choose. Based on what's been proposed so far, it seems those concerns may be justified.

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Background

Earlier this month, Health Canada revealed updates to labels on food packages. If they look familiar, it's because the changes are essentially what the former Conservative government had proposed. In a nutshell, they are designed to make the nutrition facts panel easier to understand. For instance, serving sizes will be standardized across most food products, eliminating the days of comparing the nutrients in one brand of cereal that uses a half-cup as a serving size and another that uses a cup.

The "per cent daily value" feature, which tells consumers how much of a particular nutrient is in a serving, based on the daily recommended amount, is also getting an update. From now on, the panel will carry a notice that 5 per cent or less of a daily value is a little, and 15 per cent or more is a lot.

The government will also require manufacturers to group all forms of sugar together on ingredient labels, making it easier to see how much is in a product, and will be including a "per cent daily value" for sugar.

The labels will also feature colours listed by their common name and will more prominently display allergens.

According to Dr. Mary L'Abbé, professor and chair of the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, these measures fall short in several areas.

One of the most notable examples is the new rules regarding sugar. The per cent daily value for sugar will be based on a daily recommended intake of 100 grams, which far exceeds what the World Health Organization and other experts recommend. Part of the problem is the nutrition label doesn't distinguish between free, or added, sugars and those that are naturally occurring. This makes a huge difference. Free sugars are defined as those added to foods, as well as honey, syrups and fruit juice and the WHO says they should account for less than 10 per cent of an individual's daily calories. Basing a per cent daily value for sugar on a total recommended daily intake of 100 grams can suddenly make a sugary item appear to be healthier than it is. For instance, a can of pop has 42 grams of sugar, or more than 10 teaspoons. It far exceeds the WHO recommended daily intake for sugar, but under the new per cent daily value calculation, it would be listed as having only 42 per cent of a day's worth of sugar.

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It's a problem that will pop up across many food products and will mislead consumers into thinking they are consuming less sugar than they really are, said Bill Jeffery, executive director for the Centre for Health Science and Law, an advocacy group in Ottawa.

Other long-standing problems with the nutrition facts panel were ignored in the latest round of changes. For instance, the per cent daily value for sodium is based on a 2,300 milligram daily intake, but that amount exceeds Health Canada's own daily recommended intake for adults, which is 1,500 milligrams.

More changes on the way

The nutrition panel update is just one of many changes Health Canada plans to make to food policy. Experts such as L'Abbé are hopeful the government gets it right on the next ones.

For starters, the government has launched a public consultation into a plan to ban companies from adding unhealthy trans fats to food products. This is a long overdue change that should have been brought in years ago. From the looks of the consultation document, the ban appears to be a straightforward proposal, but it won't come into force until binding regulations are introduced.

Another major initiative is the government's plan to put warning labels on food products high in sodium, sugar and saturated fat. This sounds like a good policy that will help consumers steer away from unhealthy foods. But in reality, L'Abbé says, the proposed changes will simply demonize a small portion of the most unhealthy foods on the market. That doesn't amount to good policy because it doesn't help consumers understand which products might be good for them, or which products may be moderately high in sodium, sugar or fat that they may want to avoid.

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A better model, experts say, would be one similar to what they have in Britain, where a traffic-light system guides consumers toward foods that are nutritious and helps them recognize those that may not be as healthy. It doesn't simply warn consumers against a few egregious foods.

Let's not forget promises the government made during last year's election, namely restrictions on the amount of sodium added to food and a ban on marketing of unhealthy food to children. So far, the government hasn't done much on the sodium file, which has people such as Jeffery wondering what's going on. He said he was recently at a meeting where Health Canada officials said the government is looking at voluntary reduction targets (which we currently have and don't appear to be particularly effective, based on recent food surveys). But later in the day, an official said the government is still committed to bringing in new rules to help reduce sodium levels. Right now, it's anyone's guess as to what will happen.

It's a similar story for the marketing of unhealthy food. L'Abbé said she's heard that some work has started on this file. She pointed out that Senator Nancy Green Raine may have helped push the cause along by introducing a bill earlier this year to restrict marketing of unhealthy food to children under 13.

The bottom line

In many ways, the proposed changes are a patchwork solution to a system that, in order to truly serve Canadians, needs a complete makeover. Nutrition labels in Canada are notoriously difficult to interpret and can be based on misleading information. The food guide hasn't been steering anyone in the right direction for years. A ban on trans fats and a restriction on sodium could help improve the nutritional value of the many packaged and processed foods Canadians rely on daily, but the proposed front-of-pack warning system doesn't appear like it will be much good.

There's still reason to be hopeful that the federal government will correct some of the long standing problems with food policy in Canada. Experts such as L'Abbé will be watching.

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"I think we'll have to keep a close eye that those policies don't get weakened or watered down," she said.

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