Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

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Nutrition labels are getting a makeover – Have your say!


Big news announcement from Health Canada yesterday: proposed new nutrition label guidelines are available for viewing and input

For once, I think that Health Canada is heading in the right direction with these labels. The key (proposed) changes are:

Improved new serving size guidelines

This will ensure that similar products will have to use similar serving sizes; thus, making comparisons easier. For example, all bread will have to use two slices as the serving size, and all yoghurt will have to use 175 grams. Of course, you’ll still have to do some math if the amount you normally eat differs from the serving size used on the package, but at least you won’t have to do algebra to determine which tub of yoghurt is the healthier choice. One thing I wonder about this change for the yoghurt is how it will affect those “single serve” tubs that are only 100 grams. Will they have to list their nutrition information as 175 grams? So you’ll still have to do math if you’re not planning on eating 1 and 3/4 tubs of yoghurt? I also wonder about products that currently list serving sizes that don’t match with what you would actually eat. For example, I’ve seen some packages of “bites” that contain 5 bites but the serving size is based on 1/6th of the package. I hope that this is something that will no longer be allowed when the new guidelines are approved.

Improved sugar disclosure

I love that they are proposing listing all sugars (e.g. fructose, honey, rice syrup, glucose, evaporated cane juice, etc) together in parentheses on the label following the listing of “sugar”. Of course, this will make it more difficult to determine where (based on weight) the different forms of sugar fall in the list but it helps prevent the current sneaky tactic by food manufacturers of putting in multiple types of sugar scattered throughout the ingredient list. I can’t help but wonder how they’ll address the issue of sneaky sweeteners like fruit puree and fruit juice concentrate. I hope that they’ll list those along-side the other sugars and that they’ll count them in the new “added sugars” line on the nutrition facts panel. I worry that this may be a bit of a loophole for food manufacturers trying to healthwash their products if it’s not required to be listed as sugar.

I’m not sure how I feel about the application of the “5% is a little, 15% is a lot” guide to Daily Values in relation to sugar, and other nutrients. Health Canada uses 100 grams (about 25 teaspoons) of sugar as the amount to calculate the percent daily value. I think that many people look at the %DV as an amount to shoot for. In some cases this is true. In others, it’s more of a maximum (e.g. sodium), and in others, a minimum (e.g. vitamin D). The current figures used for the %DV are also outdated and it’s great to see that Health Canada is proposing that we update those.

Appearance of the Nutrition Facts panel and ingredients list

There’s nothing really wrong with the new design. I definitely like what they’re proposing for the ingredients list. However, I would like to see the Nutrition Facts panel in a different sequence. I’d prefer to see the macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrate) in the upper panel (i.e. directly underneath the calories), with any relevant breakdown directly beneath. I think that the sugar, added sugar, and fibre should all be listed under the carbohydrate header. Listing the trans and saturated fat under the fat header is good but maybe we could go a step further and add mono- and poly-unsaturated fat as well.

Micronutrients of concern should be listed in the second section of the panel. I’m not sure about cholesterol and sodium. Dietary cholesterol really isn’t all that relevant; sodium definitely is for many people though. I think that they should either be lumped in with the micronutrients or placed in their own section. I know that we can’t include every micronutrient, and I love the addition of potassium, but I question the removal of vitamins A and C (1). Most Canadians don’t meet their needs for magnesium either so I think that this might be a useful nutrient to add. With the increased popularity of sea salt I wonder if it might be prudent to add iodine to the panel. I’m going to stop there before I disappear down a micronutrient wormhole.

It’s important to note that these are proposed changes. If you want these changes to happen, or if you want to see additional or different changes you need to provide your input to Health Canada (first link in this post).


Grocery store lessons: Labelling Lies (part 1)


I recently learned a few interesting things about nutrition labels on food that I think every grocery shopper should be aware of.

The first lesson was when I saw a new product on the shelf and took a look at the label. I noticed that there were a number of things wrong with it. The ingredient list and the quantities listed in the nutrition facts panel didn’t mesh. The most glaring problem was the sugar, which was exponentially less than the amount of sugar in a similar product despite the fact that this particular product contained added sugar! To me, this was particularly worrisome, as this could prove to be dangerous for people with diabetes besides misleading all consumers into believing that the product is healthier than it actually is. I had concerns about the fat and fibre content as well. In addition to these concerns, the label listed sugar and fibre in milligrams. In Canada, these nutrients must be listed in grams.

I contacted the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regarding the incorrect label. I must say, they were very quick to respond and agreed that the label contained these errors. Now here’s where it gets interesting. The CFIA does not have to approve product labelling in order for a product to make it to market. They have an excellent step-by-step guide to food product labelling http://www.alimentheque.com/divers/GuideFoodLabellingAdvertising_CFIA_dec2011.pdf but it’s down to the manufacturer to ensure the guide is followed. Large grocery chains will usually veto labels when listing new products for sale but sometimes things are missed. In addition, many products are only sold at smaller shops (which I’m assuming wouldn’t usually have a stringent approval process).

The CFIA will follow-up on submitted labelling concerns by contacting the manufacturer and any other relevant parties. As they don’t have the man-power to check every new product on store shelves, they rely on consumers to share any concerns regarding inaccurate labelling with them. You can easily submit any concerns to them via their web form.

Unfortunately, while the CFIA conducts their business, any inaccurately labelled products will remain on store shelves.

I think that this is an important reminder that we should not just look at the nutrition facts panel but also the ingredient list when we’re grocery shopping. I often find that the ingredient list is more useful than the nutrition facts (even when the facts are truthful). It’s also a good reason for us to attempt to buy as few packaged foods (i.e. those requiring food labels) as possible.

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Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq continues to raise my blood pressure

Even after more than a year the Sodium Working Group is still coming back to bite health minister Leona Aglukkaq in the artery. I find this whole saga frustrating for a few reasons. One, as a taxpayer, I’m annoyed that my tax dollars went to fund a working group whose recommendations were ignored. Two, as a healthcare professional I hate to see the health of Canadian citizens be disregarded for the benefit of the food industry.

For those unfamiliar, the Sodium Working Group was a group made-up of food industry representatives, Health Canada “experts”, and scientists. The group advised that sodium intake of Canadians should be reduced through education, and ensuring that food companies were adhering to more stringent sodium content amounts. These recommendations were presented to the health minister, and the public, in a report back in 2010.

Current sodium recommendations for adults in Canada are no more than 1, 500 mg a day. However, food labels use the upper limit of 2, 300 mg as the %DV on food labels. This makes it appear that you are consuming less of your maximum recommended daily allotment of sodium than you actually are. Keeping in mind that recent research has shown that food labels are highly inaccurate, even if you do the math you may be consuming considerably more sodium than you think.

The NDP and Liberals are pushing for a bill that would see at least some of the recommendations of the Sodium Working Group see the light of day. A representative speaking on behalf of Ms. Aglukkaq actually had the audacity to respond with the comments that: “Because it addresses processed foods, the NDP could spend millions on a sodium registry but Canadians who want choice can still pick that up and put the salt on their food,” said Carrie, referring to a salt shaker. That’s why our voluntary approach is better, especially with the education and the collaboration.” This despite the fact that the vast majority of our sodium intake (about 77% according to the Sodium Working Group) comes from packaged food and restaurant meals. And we can see from the current inaccuracy of food labels that we cannot actually rely on a voluntary honour-system of food labelling.

So, we can’t rely on the government to lookout for us. We certainly can’t rely on the food industry either. Your best bet: prepare as many of your own meals as possible using as many minimally processed ingredients as possible. When reading food labels don’t just look at the nutrition facts panel; look at the ingredients panel as well, the numbers only tell part of the story.

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Follow Friday: Bon Appetit food labels

I came across this article about a simplified nutrition label this week. I thought they employed an interesting way of determining the “well-being” rating for menu items. Of course, there are going to be concerns with any nutrition label and this one isn’t free from them but it’s still worth taking a look at.