‘Sound bite’ labels fall short of what’s really needed

Health Canada’s proposals for updating the food guide were always going to stir up debate, but a controversial suggestion to move to front-of-package labelling goes too far.

The recommendations say Canadians should pay closer attention to what we eat, following a set of guiding principles. The latter is where the debate becomes harder to digest.

Health Canada says Canadians should eat a variety of nutritious foods and beverages and be wary of processed foods and drinks high in sodium, sugars and saturated fat. Better education is also needed for consumers.

Fair enough, but the recommendations suggest a “shift towards a high proportion of plant-based foods, without necessarily eliminating animal foods altogether.”

Not everyone agrees. For example, some dietitians note that beef is one of the most available sources of high-quality protein, it has the potential to lower bad cholesterol, and is high in iron, zinc and B vitamins. And while the food guide recommends lean beef, it’s also more expensive and thus is not as available to low-income people.

The Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association notes in its response to the proposal for front-of-package labels that “it’s concerning that this label could lead consumers to believe that ground beef is unhealthy based on one nutrient.”

And a letter to Health Canada from more than 200 medical professionals in 2016 urges a move away from generalizations and towards tailoring diets to “stop steering people away from nutritious whole foods, such as whole-fat dairy and regular red meat” and to “offer a true range of diets that respond to the diverse nutritional needs of our population.”

Hear, hear.

The debate over nutrition is endless, but it’s puzzling that — given such debate — Health Canada is considering placing nutrition labels on the front of food packages that more or less echo what’s already on the packages. Many foods already carry labels with levels of calories, fat (saturated and trans fat), cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fibres, sugars, proteins, vitamins, calcium and iron — with the percentage of the daily recommended values.

Health Canada says “some consumers find the information provided too complex to understand and use.”

But dumbing down information into what amounts to a danger sign on the front of packages is not education. How, for example, do consumers measure the potential benefits of food against the warning signs on the labels?

Heath Canada’s recommendations have spawned opposition. A group of physicians called Canadians for Therapeutic Nutrition takes issue with the guide’s focus on saturated fats. And southern Ontario farmers launched an initiative called “Hands off my plate,” which questions the science, the conclusions and even the political agenda of Health Canada.

Hands off my plate’s approach may be a bit aggressive — arguing Health Canada has spent too much time “reading blogged research from Google” — but it raises legitimate issues about the seemingly overlooked benefits of some foods, the transparency of the research, the responsible environmental practices by Canadian farmers, and front-of-package labelling, going so far as to wonder whether those behind the food guide are pushing the Liberal government’s ideology.

Statistics Canada’s data suggests obesity rates are rising, so updating nutrition guidelines is a worthy effort. But solutions are not to be found in labelling practices that are the nutritional equivalent of a sound bite, which lack in depth and context.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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