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?

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.