Farm groups raise concerns over revised food guide

Health Canada’s new healthy eating guidelines will heavily promote plant-based protein

A revised food guide hopes to sway Canadians toward healthier eating, but it is also making some farm sectors nervous.

“We don’t know what the food guide will look like because what they have released is general guiding principles,” said dietitian Isabelle Neiderer of Dairy Farmers of Canada.

There is a focus on protein-rich foods, but legumes, nuts and other plants are categorized together with animal-based products.

“If this is an indication of where they are heading in the food guide, as a registered dietitian I have a lot of concerns with that stand,” she said in an interview during Dairy Farmers of Canada’s recent annual meeting in Edmonton.

“It is sending a message that these foods are interchangeable, and they are not.”

Plant-based proteins do not provide the same nutrients to ensure people receive adequate amounts of protein, calcium or vitamin D in their food, she added.

“The best sources of protein are animal products. They contain more protein per serving than plant-based foods,” she said.

Joyce Parlow, director of consumer relations for Canada Beef, said the nutrient density of food and calorie content needs to be considered when making recommendations for healthy eating.

Groups representing eggs, milk, turkey, chicken, pork and beef have formed the nutrient-rich alliance to promote consumption of animal protein.

“We can’t ignore the nutrient-dense benefits of some meats,” she said.

“All proteins are not equal. The protein sources from plant sources are not as nutrient rich as those from meat sources.”

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For example, seven tablespoons of peanut butter provide an equivalent amount of protein found in 75 gram serving of beef.

“You need to consume 460 more calories to get the same amount of protein from peanut butter than you would from beef,” she said.

Health Canada said it conducted an extensive review of the scientific evidence to form the food guide in 2015.

A recent report highlights that most adult Canadians consumed milk products. It identified calcium, magnesium, vitamins A, C and D, phosphorous, potassium, zinc as being deficient in many diets.

Health Canada invites the public to comment on changes that encourage people to eat more fruits, vegetables and fibre, as well as more plant-based protein. It is also zeroing in on reducing sodium and sugar in processed foods, especially in children’s diets.

In a webinar in mid-July, Health Canada officials said a poor diet is a risk factor for obesity and many chronic diseases. Many Canadians do not follow a healthy eating plan and have easy access to inexpensive foods and drinks high in sugar, calories, fat and sodium.

It’s hoped that a new food policy will increase access to affordable, safe and nutritious food and improve health and food safety. Health Canada also wants to promote environmental sustainable practices to ensure Canadians have a supply of long-term, reliable food.

Draft regulations may come out next year, and a full release is expected in 2019.

While some of the proposed changes are good, the information needs to be easy to understand and relevant, said Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“Health Canada will have to figure out a way to make the guide more relevant, modern and simple to understand,” he said in an interview.

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The proposal recognizes that eating habits have changed for many Canadians. More people snack, and eating three square meals a day at home is less common.

Food labelling about sugar and sodium content could be included in this next round.

“Health Canada wants to make food labelling with the food guide, which would actually be a first,” he said.

However, some wholesome products could be labelled as less nutritious because of the fat content, for example.

Some farmers may find reasons to be concerned about some of the proposals.

“There is this rhetoric around a plant-based diet that is getting a lot of attention,” Charlebois said.

“Food is not just about nutrition. It is about culture and history and we need to be careful before we completely set ourselves on a different course. It is a complete departure from what we are used to eating,” he said.

Nutritionists, dietitians, health professionals and those buying and preparing food for institutions such as hospitals and military will rely on the new guide to make healthy food recommendations.

“If the food guide changes, it may have a huge impact in public purchasing in general,” he said.

Farmers are encouraged to submit their opinions even if the guide is only at the early draft stage.

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