Big Food vs. Canada’s Food Guide

The interests of the food industry don’t always coincide with healthy eating. What’s at stake is Canada’s new Food Guide. It’s a big deal.

image: Globe and Mail

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.

Understandably, big food lobbies want the new guide to endorse their products. Even intergovernmental departments disagree on what should be recommended. One agency, 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.

Another agency, Agri-food Canada, disagrees. They are in the business of promoting the sale of red meat and dairy industries. Last year, 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.”

The pressure on Health Canada comes from other food manufacturers as well. Recently, the “Canadian Juice Council” surfaced. Nutritionists had never heard of them before their bright orange booth appeared at the annual conference of the Canadian Nutrition Society. Nutritional biochemist Dylan MacKay said: “I’d never seen or heard of them before and I’ve been going to CNS conferences for years (Globe and Mail, November 23, 2018).”

The origin of the Canadian Juice Council was obscure despite the presence of a web page and a Twitter account (with 2 followers). Food reporter Ann Hui isn’t surprised at the obscurity:

“And no wonder. The Juice Council doesn’t exist in the way you might expect: as an institution disseminating impartial facts and information about juice. Rather, it was created by the lobbying arm of the beverage industry – in a practice known as ‘astroturfing,’ used by lobbyists in all kinds of industries to create the appearance of a grassroots movement and a larger chorus of voices than actually exists.”

Ann Hui found that the Canadian Juice Council was an invention the Canadian Beverage Association whose members include Canada Dry Mott’s, Coca Cola Canada, and PepsiCo Canada. The industry supports 60,000 Canadians workers, 20,000 of those directly.

The Canadian Beverage Association is worried about changes in the Canada Food Guide that would remove the equivalency of whole fruit to juice. The old guide says that a half-cup of juice is a substitute for one portion of fruit.

The new guide, to be released soon, will advise Canadians to avoid drinks high in sugar. One 12-ounce bottle of orange juice contains about the same amount of sugar as 12 ounces of Coke – more sugar than the World Health Organization recommends for the average adult in a single day. Excess sugar consumption is linked with heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

The government is in a hard spot –do they support an industry that employs thousands of workers in the making of an unhealthy product or the health of Canadians who consume it?

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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?

Lies, damn lies, and category 1 carcinogens

The World Health Organization recently placed processed meat in category 1 of carcinogens, along with radioactive elements and asbestos. That’s the list of agents “carcinogenic to humans.” They also placed red meat in 2A which includes Glyphosate (Roundup) and lead compounds which are merely “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

bacon

Is eating bacon more likely to cause cancer than exposure to an herbicide? No. Agents aren’t listed according to risk. The criterion used is: do they or do they not cause cancer. The categories are grouped by experts according to certainty from the most evident all the way down to category 4, “Probably not carcinogenic to humans” of which there is one item, Caprolactam (used to make nylon).

Risk is determined by how much you are exposed to the carcinogen. André Picard, public health reporter for the Globe and Mail explains:

“The expert group does hazard identification, not risk assessment. Practically, that means they determine, yes or no, whether something may cause cancer, but not how potent it is at a causing cancer,” and adds, “It’s important to remember, however, that not every exposure to a potential carcinogen will cause cancer: Frequency, intensity and potency matter.”

All agents in a category don’t carry the same risk. If they did, people would be dropping like flies from eating meat. Compared to other items, they are not.

Eating processed meat and smoking tobacco, both in category 1, don’t have the same mortality rate. Processed meats result in 34,000 deaths worldwide annually whereas smoking causes about one million cancer deaths. Also in category 1, asbestos kills more than 100,000 and alcohol causes 600,000 cancer deaths a year.

Also misleading is the way percentages are used to translate statistics. For example, two slices of bacon are reported to increase your risk of colorectal cancer by 18 per cent. Eating a 4 ounce steak will result in a similar increase. But when risks of colorectal cancer are low to begin with, a small percentage increase of a small risk is still a small risk. The actual numbers expose this fallacy, explains Pickard:

“Based on these estimates, about 66 in every 1,000 people who eat a lot of red meat or processed meat will develop colorectal cancer in their lifetime; by comparison, 56 of every 1,000 who eat very little meat, processed or otherwise, will develop colorectal cancer.”

In other words, the increased risk is 10 out of 1,000. If you are one of those 10 persons who acquire cancer from eating meat, it’s tragic but as a risk assessment it’s not that bad.

Risk assessment is complicated by the toxicity of the agent, the amount of the agent you are exposed to, the length of time exposed to it, the way you are exposed (inhaled, ingested, topically applied), and your genetics.

The categories are useful in determining what to avoid, if possible. But some things are almost unavoidable. Like living: walking in the sun (ultraviolet rays), working (painter, hairdressers and shift-workers), eating (barbequing at high temperatures), camping (wood smoke), and travelling (cosmic rays from flying in a plane, breathing vehicle exhaust).

Unavoidable, like being alive: the naturally produced hormone estrogen has been linked with cancer, especially when combined with the artificial hormone progestin.