Researcher pushes for better food labelling to encourage healthier eating

When it comes to food, Canadians are sold convenience over quality too often.

Nisa Drozdowski - 21 March 2018

Our diets are killing us.

Canadians' poor diet is the leading risk factor for developing chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity-and for premature death.

Even though most Canadians are aware that food affects their health, Professor Kim Raine explains that food choices are often driven by convenience and cost.

"We've seen an increase in the availability of packaged, convenience food products that appeal to busy lifestyles," said Raine. "So, too often, healthier, nutrient-dense foods may be squeezed out by low nutritional quality foods, some of which are perceived as 'healthy'."

"The result is many Canadians are eating excessive amounts of sugar, sodium and saturated fats, which are linked to chronic diseases."

The Government of Canada's Healthy Eating Strategy aims to change the way citizens eat by improving the country's food environment "to make it easier for Canadians to make the healthier choice." Tactics include updating Canada's Food Guide and improving nutrition labelling for food.

"Nutrition labelling is one tool for communicating nutrition information," said Raine, director of the Centre for Health and Nutrition "But, the nutrition facts table can be really difficult to interpret."

It's the consensus of Raine and other nutrition researchers that additional labelling-including front-of-package, on grocery shelves and in menus-is needed to help Canadians reduce their intake of sugar, sodium and saturated fats, while increasing the beneficial nutrients in their diet. Their consensus recommendations were recently published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

"Consumers need help to interpret nutrition facts," Raine explained. "For example, if a label indicates a food product offers 50 per cent daily value of fat but also 50 per cent daily value of calcium, is it a good choice or a poor choice?"

Raine was recently invited by Health Canada to present research experts' recommendations on front-of-package labelling. Recommendations included that labels should be standardized, simple, interpretive, visually prominent and consistently located. Also, labelling on its own is not enough. It has to be part of a comprehensive strategy including nutrition education and reformulating foods to make them healthier.

There also needs to be restrictions on other stakeholders, such as food and beverage industries, from making their own recommendations. "Part of the challenge to date is consumers see a mishmash of industry-developed logos promoting the health of their products, with no common criteria for what is identified as 'healthy.' That contributes to consumer confusion."

Raine also points to the lack of nutrition information available for prepared deli and bakery products, as well as produce. That's where moving beyond the package to labels on grocery shelves and in menus could help. Ideally, she'd like to see labelling that includes the good with the bad, nutritionally speaking. Encouraging consumption of nutritious whole foods is as important to health as labels warning of health risk.

Raine says it's likely Health Canada will start with labelling that focuses primarily on clearly alerting consumers to high levels of three nutrients of greatest concern-sugar, sodium and saturated fat.

"There is no easy solution," Raine conceded. "But we're all trying to achieve the same goal of reducing chronic disease and improving the health of Canadians by making it easier for them to make healthy food choices."

Health Canada has launched online food front-of-package symbol consumer consultation. Participate by April 26, 2018 and your responses will help guide food labelling in Canada.