Promoting good eating habits better than warning labels

A front-of-package food warning 
system that Health Canada is proposing would treat dairy products unfairly by warning Canadians away from nutritious milk-based food.

Health Canada has launched a campaign to promote healthy eating, physical activity and mental health.

The healthy eating strategy includes revising Canada’s food guide, improving nutrition labelling and introducing a new highly visible warning system for food high in sugar, sodium and saturated fat.

Whole milk, cheese and sweetened yogurt would likely run afoul of the program’s thresholds and would have to display a warning sign.

With two-thirds of adult Canadians and one-third of children now overweight or obese, we support government efforts to try to point people toward healthier eating.

A report from the Senate’s social affairs, science and technology committee says that obesity costs Canada $4.6 to $7.1 billion a year in health-care and lost productivity.

However, warning labels are a blunt instrument that will likely only vilify certain foods and do little to address the real reasons for our expanding waistlines.

To put whole milk, which is brimming with nutrients such as vitamins D, A, B12, calcium and other minerals, riboflavin and protein, in the same category as some processed junk food would be ridiculous.

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott suggests that the warning signs might be a stick used to get food processors to reformulate their products to use less sugar, fat and salt.

We can appreciate efforts to make food processors more responsible, but whole milk can’t be reformulated and salt is an indispensable part of cheese making.

And we question the foundation of the idea behind the need for warning labels — that consumers need more information so that they can make healthy choices.

Is any adult confused over whether eating sugary drinks, salty snacks, fast food or prepackaged highly processed meals are healthy? 

Do we need to puzzle over the nutrition label on the frosted cereal with children’s cartoon characters to determine if it is better or worse than the whole grain alternative with a serving of fresh fruit?

Most of us know what we should be eating; the problem is we don’t do it.

Too often we don’t make our own meals. We are surrounded by purveyors of ready-made meals with enormous advertising budgets. Meals are not a family affair but are consumed on the go. 

Our car culture, along with the ubiquity of televised and internet entertainment, encourage a sedentary lifestyle.

To solve our weight and health issues, we need societal change. That is a big order and government efforts to change habits often spark complaints about a nanny state.

A Senate committee report sets out what could be a national approach led by Ottawa but involving governments at all levels as well as schools, community groups and business to examine policies and how they can encourage a healthy lifestyle.

The report notes the success of the anti-smoking strategy, which over decades, through the use of education, media campaigns, advertising restrictions, workplace programs, taxes and regulations, drastically reduced the number of people who smoke.

We don’t need to vilify certain foods; we need to discourage bad habits.

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