My beef with Canada’s new food guide

Canada’s new food guide is being influenced by agencies whose chief focus is the consumption of their products, not our health. Food industries and a branch of government, Agri-food Canada, are resisting proposed changes by Health Canada.

     Proposed food label. Image : Globe and Mail

Health Canada wants the new food guide to “shift towards more plant-based foods,” less red meats, and to limit “some meats and many cheeses” high in saturated fats.

These are sensible recommendations but not what Agri-food Canada wants. They are in the business of promoting the sale of red meat and dairy industries. AAFC officials wrote a memo marked “secret” in which they worried:

“Messages that encourage a shift toward plant-based sources of protein would have negative implications for the meat and dairy industries (Globe and Mail).”

Yes they would have negative implications but the health of Canadians trumps the meat and dairy industries.

Canada’s food guide is widely respected. Seventy-five years after its first launch, it’s the second most requested government document after income-tax forms. It’s distributed to dieticians and doctors for patient advice, and to schools and hospitals for creating meal plans. The new guide will be around for a long time, so it’s important to get it right.

The current guide, revised in 2007, had a number of flaws. It recommends juice as a serving of vegetables and fruit. It recommends two servings of “milk and alternatives” and two servings of “meat and alternative.” Juice is not a substitute for whole fruit and vegetables. Too much red meat and saturated fats are unhealthy.

There are problems with the “Nutrition Facts” label as well. The serving size is not standard so that breakfast cereals, for example, may appear to have similar calorie content but, in fact, differ because the serving sizes vary.

Health advocates recommend that the new Nutrition facts label be moved from the back to the front of the package, and that foods which are high in salt, sugar, or saturated fats have a “stop” or “yield” sign. At a meeting with Health Canada in September, food and beverage industry reps were furious. They called the warning a “big, scary stop sign,” and that the signs were overly simplistic. They prefer detailed labels on the back rather than blunt symbols on the front. A lawyer for the food industry argued that Health Canada was not giving Canadians the respect they deserve: “They’re not idiots.”

Canadians are not idiots but they’re not nutrition specialists either. The food industry would rather have detailed specifications on the back because many shoppers find them hard to interpret.

The food industry complains that plain symbols like stop and yield signs would make consumers think they are “like a chemical warning sign.”

But warning symbols are appropriate because some foods are unhealthy. More than one-fifth of Canadians are obese. Diet-related chronic illness costs our health care system $7 billion a year. Heart disease and stroke are the leading cause of death.

Under the Harper government, the AAFC held sway. When Health Canada wanted to revise the guide back then to “choose local or regional foods when available,” the AAFC vetoed it. We’ll see how determined the Trudeau government is in shaping a healthy food guide. Will the government defend the health of Canadians or the food industry?

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Local content on the new aether

Medieval scientists believed that radio waves were carried through a medium they called the aether. Seems sensible. If sound waves require a medium, why not radio waves? It turns out that radio doesn’t need a medium; a vacuum will do nicely.

radio

     radio waves

The internet is the new aether. The “network of networks” depends on wires and optical fibers to carry signals. The internet wouldn’t exist without it (Wifi is radio but it’s just a connection to the internet).

We straddle both worlds –ethereal radio waves surround us while the internet remains wired. If I put up an antenna, I can receive CFJC TV for free. I chose to pay Shaw cable to have the station delivered to my house.

The internet is as disruptive as early radio and TV was and its role is still being defined. Is the internet a broadcaster? If CFJC is a broadcaster and if I can receive the same station over the internet, it would seem like it.

Not so. In 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada heard arguments from program producers that cable companies were broadcasters. The court agreed with cable companies that they were not.

It’s not trivial matter. If traditional TV stations are broadcasters and cable companies are, then the cost of production local shows and news has to be paid for by the TV stations –they receive nothing for the signals that cable carries.

It’s a problem in small cities like Kamloops because local news and programming is expensive to produce and ad revenue is not as high as large cities.

In the past, cable and satellite companies have grudgingly paid into temporary funds to support local programming but it’s a constant battle. This has left small markets scrambling to make ends meet.

Local news is vital. It not only informs the community it serves, reflects its values, and is vital in emergencies. Rick Arnish, Chair of the Small Market Independent Television Stations Coalition (SMITS), was a strong advocate of local TV before retiring. He also supported free over-the-air TV for people who can’t afford cable. He made that clear in his letter to the Canadian Radio-television & Telecommunications Commission in 2015:

“Over 95% of the participants who posted comments on the topic of over-the-air television in the online consultation held during Phase 3 referred to the importance and value of the ability to receive television programs inexpensively over the air and opposed proposals to shut down transmitters. Canadians value local news, with a CRTC commissioned poll putting the number who consider it ‘important’ at 81%.”

Arnish also made clear that cable companies should share the cost of local TV if small stations are to survive.

“Moreover, all things being equal, with the phase out of LPIF [Local Programming Improvement Fund] now complete, the SMITS Coalition stations as a group will be in the red this broadcast year, given the loss of the $5.4 million contributed by LPIF last year.”

Before retiring last year, Arnish was Program Director at CFJC TV and General Manager of Broadcast Centre and later President of the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group.

The internet transmits the content from traditional sources without paying for its creation. Unlike the old aether which radiated local programming, the new aether sucks the life from local TV.

The bitter side of honey

Becoming bee friendly is a good first step for the city. Now Kamloops needs to become honey friendly.

Bee City Canada

Bee City Canada

Canadian and American consumers are getting stung with fake honey. Much of comes from China, the world’s largest honey producer but you wouldn’t know it. Chinese honey is being laundered.

The label rarely says “made in China.” Instead, it will show the country of origin as being from countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Taiwan: suspiciously, places that ordinarily don’t produce much honey.

An investigation by the Globe and Mail found that Chinese producers export cheap and often contaminated honey to countries mislabelled as molasses, fructose or glucose syrup so customs officials don’t become suspicious.

The Chinese honey is filtered to remove any soil or pollen that would identify the county of origin and exported to countries around the world.

Worse still, the Chinese honey may be contaminated with antibiotics and adulterated with sugar:

“Most honey comes from China, where beekeepers are notorious for keeping their bees healthy with antibiotics banned in North America because they seep into honey and contaminate it; packers there learn to mask the acrid notes of poor quality product by mixing in sugar or corn-based syrups to fake good taste.”

The importation of fake and imported honey leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of Neil Specht. The Saskatchewan honey producer has seen the price of honey drop from $2.43 to $1.11 a pound last year due to the flood of imported honey into Canada.

“There are few, if any, honey producers that can operate at $1.11 per pound,” Specht told Walrus magazine. “I would suspect the costs of production for most are in the $1.60 to $1.65 range.”

Specht had a bumper crop last year, more than 500,000 pounds, and he’s not sure what to do with it. He could sell it at a loss or keep it in hopes that prices will improve. He normally sells his honey to the Western Canadian co-operative Bee Maid.

Consumer confusion over labelling doesn’t help. When buyers see “Canada No. 1” on a label, they think it’s produced in Canada. But that is just an indication of grade, not country of origin. Fine print may reveal the true source.

Canadian honey producers are understandingly upset. Manitoba bee keeper Allan Campbell alleges that Canada’s largest honey packer, Billy Bee, is marketing their honey as pure Canadian while as much as one-half of the contents may imported. Spokespeople for Billy Bee deny this, insisting that their honey is eighty-five per cent Canadian. Billy Bee brand is a blend of Canadian and Argentine honeys while their Natural Honey Farms brand contains honey from China.

It’s well and good for Kamloops to promote healthy ecosystems for bees; they pollinate much of the food we eat. However, the honey they produce is worth protecting as well. I don’t mean just the honey bought at Kamloops’ Farmers Markets, which I would think is pure Canadian, but also the honey sold on grocery store shelves.

The bee-friendly brand is cute but the hard work is lobbying governments to remove deceptive labelling so that it’s clear what consumers are buying in bee-friendly Kamloops.

Seeing red in food dyes

They have no nutritional value; they are completely unnecessary; and they are harmful to health. Yet food dyes are added in growing amounts.

Blue #1 and Blue #2 banned in Norway, Finland and France,

Blue #1 and Blue #2 banned in Norway, Finland and France,

If you read food labels, as I do, you won’t necessarily find them listed.  Health Canada reluctantly allows dyes to be labelled as “colours,” which obscures what they really are.

“Regulations provide food manufacturers with the choice of declaring added colour(s) by either their common name or simply as ‘colours’.”

I say reluctantly because Health Canada recognizes that current labelling is a problem. They would prefer that all colours be listed by their common name or by the Colour Identification number. And they want natural colours, which can cause allergic or sensitivity responses, to be listed as well.

To get some idea of what such labelling might look like, the European Union has the following regulation in place since 2010.

“This regulation requires that the synthetic colours sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine (E122), allura red (E129), tartrazine (E102), and Ponceau 4R (E124) be labelled by their common names or E numbers in the list of ingredients along with the following warning statement: ‘may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children’.

What was once only suspected is now confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt. Since the 1970s, more than 30 studies have been conducted on the adverse affects of dyes. Two large studies done in the United Kingdom found that they affect the behaviour of children in the general population.

When food dyes are eliminated, adverse behaviour is reduced in children. A report from Center for Science in the Public Interest released earlier this year states:

“The mounting evidence has led to a growing consensus among researchers, physicians, psychologists, and others who treat patients with such behavioural disorders as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that avoidance of food dyes benefits some children.”

The dyes in just a single cupcake or glass of Kool-Aid can be enough to prompt adverse behavioural reactions in some children. If the U.S. numbers are projected to Canada, fifty thousand children suffer adverse behavioural reactions after ingesting food dyes with a cost of hundreds of millions to our health care system.

The United Kingdom regulates dyes in foods, especially those which appeal to children. Take McDonald’s Strawberry Sundae, for example. In the UK the ingredients are Strawberries (38%), Sugar, Glucose, Syrup, Gelling Agent (Pectin), Acidant (Citric Acid).  In the U.S., the percentage of strawberries is not shown and while the other ingredients are similar, Red 40 has been added.

The food industry likes food dyes because they can reduce or eliminate any natural ingredients without any change in appearance.

The harm to children and the costs to society from dyes are needless and preventable. If Health Canada recognizes food dyes as being harmful, why hasn’t the Government of Canada acted on their concerns? The short answer is that the Government of Canada during the Dark Decade preferred to let industry regulate itself.

Elimination of harmful food dyes is just one more things on the current government’s to-do list. No doubt Canadians will have to remind them of their duty to protect the health of children.

You can’t eat GM wheat

 

You can’t eat genetically modified wheat because it’s not commercially available. Contrary to a rumour circulating on social media, gluten intolerance is not on the rise because we are eating genetically modified wheat. Amy Harmon clarifies:

gmo

“To be clear, wheat has been genetically modified. Monsanto Co. has field-tested wheat that was altered to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate. A British research institute field-tested modified wheat to repel insects. (It didn’t work.) In 2014, Chinese researchers modified wheat to resist a destructive disease called powdery mildew, but just to see if they could. And Spanish researchers are testing wheat engineered to contain, yes, significantly less gluten. But none of it is on store shelves ( Globe and Mail , July 15, 2016).”

Just the mention of the words “genetically modified’ is enough to strike fear and loathing in the hearts of consumers with the spectre of frankenfoods poisoning our food supply and dooming future generations.

In fact, three-quarters of the foods now on grocery store shelves are genetically modified or contain ingredients that are; foods such as soy, canola, corn, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya; ingredients such as Vitamin C, Citric Acid, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Lactic Acid, Molasses, Xanthan Gum, Vitamins, Yeast Products.

Consumers have been pushing for labelling that reveals genetic modification. I favour such labelling –not because GM foods are necessarily dangerous but because good science has nothing to hide.

However, labelling may not bring the clarity that consumers seek because the designation means many things. Labelling alone will not reveal that Hawaiian papaya has been genetically modified by inoculated it against a virus that threatened to destroy the crop, and that inoculation was done with the very virus that threatened it.

That’s not quite the same as the modification in soy lecithin, found in ice cream, which made it resistant to weed-killer.

Confusingly, some foods that have been modified genetically might not be designated as genetically modified. Let me explain. Okanagan Specialty Fruits has developed an apple that doesn’t brown by removing the enzyme. Removal of a gene is not genetic modification according to some regulators –only the addition of genes is considered so. The same is true for a mushroom in which a gene section that causes browning has been precisely removed.

Should canola oil be labelled as GM when the oil itself is not? Most canola grown is Canada has been modified to resist herbicides. The modification is to the plant, and all plant proteins are removed in the processing. The canola oil produced is exactly the same regardless of the source.

Genetic modification includes foods engineered to be healthier. The so-called golden rice has had genes from corn and common soil bacteria added to provide beta carotene which the human body uses to make vitamin A.

If labelling comes to Canada, consumers should educate themselves as to just what the GM designation means. Given the general level of public awareness of science, I suspect that they will not. I predict that a niche market will open for non-GM foods but most consumers will continue buy GM foods without much concern. I know I will.

How credit cards make money

When I got my first credit card, I couldn’t understand how companies made money. I took my stuff home from the store without paying for it until the end of the month. I used someone else’s money in the interim –an interest free loan.

KIEV, UKRAINE - March 11: Pile of credit cards, Visa and MasterCard, credit, debit and electronic, in Kiev, Ukraine, on March 11, 2014.

And icing on the cake, they paid me to use the card with “cash back” on my dividend card. What kind of crazy business model is this?

Older and wiser, I now know how they make money. They charge businesses for each transaction and add penalties for those who don’t pay off their balances at the end of the month.

Of course, transaction fees drive up costs and I end up paying a bit more for the items I buy. I feel a bit guilty using credit cards because I pay the same as those  with cash pay without the benefits.

Some merchants give buyers a break. When I was driving in Washington State recently I noticed that gas stations gave a discount for cash, which is only right since the merchant’s costs are less. I haven’t noticed it in Canada.

Just how much credit card companies charge became an issue recently when Walmart Canada accused Visa of charging them too much.  Without revealing how much Walmart pays to which credit card company, they said they pay $100 million in fees annually to Visa and MasterCard. Walmart made good on their threat this week by denying Visa cards in Thunder Bay. Across Canada, credit card companies charge a total of $5 billion, an average of 1.5 per cent on transactions.

What I don’t understand is why consumers don’t pay off their balance monthly. It may be free money until the end of the month but then –wow. Unpaid balances are essentially loans at exorbitant rates 12 to 14 per cent.

“Now, why would a consumer take out a loan at rates like those?” wonders Noah Smith, “If you’re buying a house, you would get a mortgage at a rate of about 3.5 per cent. If you’re buying a car, you’d get an auto loan, which are at more like 1 to 3 per cent (Globe and Mail, July 1, 2016)”

For cheaper items like furniture, clothes and electronics, it’s easier to save up the money and buy things outright. The exception might be, say, when you are young and get your first job and you need a credit card to furnish your apartment.

There are a lot of people who can’t or won’t pay off their balance at the end of the month. Credit card companies depend on buyers to be irrational and buy things they can’t afford. They prey on the most vulnerable –the poor and less educated.

“Credit-card companies need people to spend more than they can afford, but not so much that they default on their payments. So they could benefit from targeting individuals who are more likely to have cognitive failings. This is the dark side of behavioural finance.”

The vulnerable are burdened with more debt and I with more guilt knowing my interest-free loan is paid for by those who can least afford it.

How to sell more salt

It’s a marketing triumph to increase salt sales when Canadians eat too much of the stuff.

Specialty salts

Specialty salts

We’re supposed to limit salt to 2,300 milligrams a day. Instead we consume 3,400. The Harper government created a task force to study the problem and they came up with recommendations. Then government replaced the task force with a panel. That one was criticized for having too many ties to the food industry. Predictably, the panel recommendations were more industry-friendly than health-conscious.

Health Canada was then instructed by the Harper government, I think it’s fair to suppose, to make regulations to the food industry voluntary.

To no one’s surprise, voluntary regulations don’t work. Average salt levels didn’t decrease, reports Carly Weeks (Globe and Mail, April 27, 2016). A few foods where it did decrease was cause for the food industry to claim that they were making “significant progress.”

Time will tell whether the Trudeau government will get serious about regulating the food industry. It was one of their campaign promises.

Selling more salt when your product is so vilified may seem like trying to increase cigarette sales. The trick is to find where salt is controlled by consumers. It turns out that we don’t control most of the salt we consume.

Most of the salt comes from packaged foods: 77 per cent. Only 6 per cent is added while cooking and another 5 per cent is added at the table. (I don’t put a salt shaker on the table. I figure it’s an insult to my cooking when guests add salt.)

The market, then, is in the 6 per cent that the cook adds and the 5 per cent (unwisely) put on the table. Windsor Salt, one of Canada’s oldest brands, is giving itself a more “premium” image reports Susan Krashinsky (Globe and Mail, April 28, 2016.)

Windsor’s vice-president of sales and marketing explains the strategy: “Now, we see a trend where the consumer is willing to pay more for salt with different features.”

Image is important: Windsor has made small changes to the design of the package. These changes may seem trivial but they’re based on research. The changes were tested on subjects in which illustrations, called planograms, of salt packages on store shelves where shown to test subjects. Designs that were most eye-catching were used.

Another tactic is table appeal. A Windsor marketer states: “Our goal is to be on the table with that bottle of wine, and the nice cheese that the consumer is buying.”

It’s working. Specialty salts now make up one-half the retail salt market in Canada. More shelf space is being given these salts. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver sells his own line of salt grinders including Mediterranean sea salt, pink Himalayan salt, and thyme, lemon and bay salt.

Salt sales are up: on a tonnage basis by 2 per cent and on a dollar basis, 11 per cent. Salty snack sales are up. A Neilson researcher says: “Even though consumers are concerned about health and wellness, the salty snack category is doing really well.”

It’s a triumph of marketing over good sense and lack of regulation.