Dairy Farmers of Canada has grave concerns about a Health Canada initiative to flag certain foods as being unhealthy.
The government is proposing to use front-of-package labelling to help consumers avoid foods high in salt, sugar or saturated fat.
The regulation under development is part of federal Health Minister Jane Philpott’s Healthy Eating Strategy launched last October.
“We’re trying to improve the diets of Canadians,” said Alfred Aziz, chief of the nutrition regulations and standards division at Health Canada.
One of the biggest health issues in the country is obesity and its associated chronic diseases.
An unhealthy diet is one of the top risk factors for obesity.
Health Canada is contemplating using one of four proposed symbols, such as a stop sign with an exclamation mark, on the front of food packages it feels pose a public health concern.
Proposed thresholds would be prepackaged foods that contain 15 percent of the daily recommended intake of salt, sugar or saturated fat or prepackaged meals containing 30 percent of the daily intake.
That would amount to 345 milligrams or more of salt per serving, 15 grams or more of total sugar and three grams of saturated fat in prepackaged foods. The amounts double for prepackaged meals.
Nathalie Savoie, assistant director of nutrition with Dairy Farmers of Canada, said the bulk of dairy products would be slapped with the “very negative symbols” if the regulation proceeds as outlined in a recent consultation document circulated by Health Canada.
“It’s very easy to go over that 15 percent for sugars, for instance, or saturated fat or sodium in the case of cheese,” she said.
Savoie said salt, sugar and saturated fat information already exists on the nutrition fact labels attached to all prepackaged food products.
However, Health Canada doesn’t think that is sufficient. It believes some consumers find the information too complex to understand.
Savoie said under the existing proposal, skim milk, one and two percent milk and low fat plain yogurt would not have to sport the new symbol.
Whole milk, cheese and anything with added sugar such as flavoured yogurt, yogurt drinks and chocolate milk would receive a warning symbol.
There is no getting around that there is saturated fat, sugar and salt in milk, yogurt and cheese products, but Savoie said they are still wholesome products that contain all sorts of other healthy nutrients.
Under the proposed regulation, products such as diet soda and most chips will not receive a warning sign while milk, cheese and yogurt will.
“What does that tell (consumers)? That they should have chips and not cheese? That doesn’t make much sense to me as a dietician,” said Savoie.
Aziz said Health Canada is not telling people to stop eating products containing the symbol but is simply alerting them that they are high in nutrients of concern.
For instance, sweetened yogurt may exceed the sugar threshold while plain yogurt would not.
“We want to encourage people to choose the yogurt that does not have the symbol,” he said.
Savoie said it might be easy to alter some food products to meet the new thresholds. Many products use salt for flavour and processors could find a substitute spice.
However, salt is a necessary technical ingredient in cheese. It is used for food safety, to control fermentation and for humidity. It can’t be removed without fundamentally altering the product.
Savoie said the proposed policy is completely focused on the harmful nutrients in products rather than the helpful ones.
Health Canada recently conducted a scientific study that revealed Canadians have inadequate intake of eight key nutrients, six of which are contained in milk products.
“It’s a wholesome food. Why should wholesome foods be negatively portrayed?” she said.
Aziz said food manufacturers have ample opportunity to boast about the positive attributes of their products, such as printing health claims on milk jugs and yogurt containers saying they are excellent sources of calcium and Vitamin D.
“It’s not accurate to say that we’re only focusing on these three nutrients,” he said.
“As a matter of fact, when you look at the front of the package now, not only in dairy but all types of products, you only see positive attributes of the food. What we want to bring is some kind of balance to that front-of-the-package label.”
Savoie said Health Canada would also be sending out conflicting messages.
The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends that children drink whole milk, yet the proposed regulation would result in a stop sign being placed on whole milk cartons.
Aziz said Health Canada is still recommending that children younger than two drink whole milk and will be promoting that in Canada’s Food Guide and other educational and promotional material.
The next step will be publishing the proposed regulation in the Canada Gazette, Part 1, this fall and receiving further feedback. Publishing the final regulation in Canada Gazette, Part 2, will follow.
Aziz said introduction of the symbol will be aligned with changes to the nutrition facts label. Companies have until the end of 2021 to comply with those changes.