bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

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Breaking the (food labelling) law


A little over a year ago Canada changed the food labelling laws for common allergens. With the growing prevalence of food allergies and celiac disease this change in the law was intended to provide clarity for the consumer. No longer could food manufacturers use the statement “may contain x, y, z, etc” to cover their butts. That statement was now to only be used if there was a real risk of an allergen being present in a food. Consumers were advised to treat any allergen identified in this manner as being present in the ingredient list. Despite this, it seems that some companies are just not getting it.

There are a couple of areas that I’m not sure about as they don’t seem to be clearly covered in the labelling laws: restaurants and supplements. Neither of these are packaged foods; however, it seems to me as they are ingested by consumers they really should have to comply to the same regulations. Then again, we all know how closely the supplement industry is regulated by Health Canada and the CFIA. Despite foods listing “hydrolyzed vegetable protein” on their ingredient lists having to identify the specific vegetable source of the protein in their allergen statement, it seems that supplements do not have to as I have seen many vitamins listing HVP without stating the source.

Not very long ago I was out for dinner with my family. I noticed that the menu offered “gluten-free” pizzas. However, a disclaimer stated that, because the kitchen was not gluten-free there may be cross-contamination of the pizzas. I went on a little tirade to my family about how they shouldn’t make the statement that their pizza crusts are gluten-free if they can’t guarantee that they haven’t been cross-contaminated. I’m sure they meant well but for someone with celiac disease it’s like saying “here, you can eat this, oh, maybe not”. It only takes a very small amount of gluten for someone with celiac disease to become quite ill.

The worst offender though are the Beanitos chips. They’re a relatively new tortilla chip made from beans rather than from corn. The package proudly proclaims that they’re gluten-free yet, if you read the allergen statement it says that they’re “made in a facility that also processes wheat.” Hmm…. Pretty sure that this is contrary to the new labelling laws. If there is enough risk of cross-contamination then you can’t say that your product is gluten-free. This is the butt-covering that the new labelling laws were designed to curtail. Your product is either gluten-free or it’s not.

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We’re eating ourselves to death

You may have recently seen in the news that diet is the top risk factor for disease and premature death in Canada. This is based on a study entitled the Global Burden of Disease. They’ve created a number of reports for countries around the world. The report for Canada indicates that the number one risk factor for disease in our country is diet. The top diseases that it contributes to are: cardiovascular, cancer, and diabetes. The second greatest risk factor is smoking, followed by body mass index (BMI) which (in some cases) can also be an issue of diet. Scrolling down the list there are a number of additional risk factors which are also closely related to diet: high blood pressure, high fasting plasma glucose, high total cholesterol, alcohol use, iron deficiency, and low bone mineral density.

I think that there are two sides to this coin. On one side, it’s unfortunate that we’re essentially making ourselves ill. On the other side, diet is a controllable risk factor so we have the power to improve our health. Honestly, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Healthy eating doesn’t mean never having a cookie or french fries. The most important step you can take to improve your diet is to simply prepare the vast majority of the food you eat at home. Don’t rely on restaurants, take-out, or pre-packaged meals. Take a page from this year’s Nutrition Month theme which is: Plan, Shop, Cook, Enjoy! Use the findings of this report and the fact that it’s Nutrition Month as motivation to set a healthy eating goal for yourself. Start small. If you eat lunch out everyday make a plan to bring lunch from home at least one or two days of the week. Or, ensure that you always have nutritious snacks on hand so that you’re not buying a chocolate bar or bag of chips when you get hungry. Don’t try to overhaul your entire diet at once. You’re too likely to get frustrated and give up entirely. Chose one goal for the month and then build on that.

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Are all Canadians deserving of a healthy diet?

UN special rapporteur for food Olivier De Schutter recently came to Canada and pissed off the Canadian government. He was in Canada to spark conversation about food security in our country. Why was our government so pissed off? Well, De Schutter had the gall to point out that Canada has a shamefully high level of food insecurity for such a wealthy nation. He also drew attention to the fact that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening in our country and that means that the number of Canadians struggling to afford a nutritious diet will only continue to grow. The Conservative Canadian government pointed out that we spend loads of money on food aid for developing nations and that De Schutter should be focusing on these good deeds and the needs of those impoverished countries. How nice that, when faced with criticism about poverty and food insecurity at home, our government tries to take the heat off by pointing out that we help poorer nations. That’s just lovely, we can’t afford to pay Canadian citizens enough money to afford a nutritious diet but we can spend billions on aid for other nations. Not that I begrudge those other nations, far from it. I just think that we need to stop turning a blind eye to the situation at home and start coming up with real solutions. Every year we assess the cost of a basic nutritious diet in most provinces, every year we find that many people (e.g. those on social assistance, seniors dependent on Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, and those making minimum wage) are unable to afford even the most basic of nutritious diets. And what do we do about it? We write reports and send them to government officials and then we do it all again the next year. No wonder the UN wouldn’t have us as a member of the Security Council.

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Don’t let pesky pesticides put you off organic

It’s been all over the news today that pesticide residue was found on organic produce. I can’t say that this surprised me. To be honest, I was surprised that everyone else seems so surprised. I was also surprised that the percentage of contaminated produce was so small, only 23.6%. There are many ways in which organic produce can become contaminated with pesticides. Pesticides get into the water and soil and can contaminate produce in this way. There can also be contamination from spraying on neighbouring non-organic crops. According to reports, the contamination of this particular produce occurred post-harvest during storage. I’m not sure how that’s acceptable, perhaps it’s only necessary to grow crops without using pesticides to use the organic designation? That’s beside the point though. We’ve pumped so many hazardous chemicals into the environment that it’s amazing that anything is left uncontaminated. Babies are born with pesticides in their systems. We store pesticides in our body fat. A little pesticide contamination shouldn’t deter you from buying organic if that’s your prerogative. There are still many benefits to organic produce. For one thing, the more organic food that’s grown the fewer pesticides being added to the water and soil, that means that in the long run we’ll be wreaking less havoc on the environment. You’re also avoiding GMOs by choosing organic. Even if some organic produce is contaminated by pesticides, you’re still lowering your risk of exposure in comparison to “conventionally” grown crops. Purchasing organic produce doesn’t absolve you from needing to wash your fresh fruit and veggies anyway. Produce has come into contact with so many other possible contaminants during its journey to the grocery store and its time on the shelf that you should always wash it before eating it.