The United States has tried to provide information on healthy food, but has been fighting an uphill battle. Canada has a much worse nutrition situation on many levels yet we haven't seen much government action to try and improve the situation in Canada.
A new Canadian Senate report calls for some tried solutions but hidden past the headlines, there are some intriguing options that could truly make a difference in Canada.
One advantage that the Canadian Senate has is that its members are not elected, so there is less political pressure on the upper chamber. This is one of the many reasons why I wanted to be a Canadian senator. Let's dig into the potential of the Canadian Senate report for some healthy nuggets:
Addressing inconsistency of front package labeling
The report said the Minister of Health should "immediately undertake a review of front-of-package labelling approaches that have been developed in other jurisdictions and identify the most effective one." We've seen horrible inconsistencies between the content of the front of labels vs. the back of labels. We'd be curious if Canada might adopt labeling practices from European products. Even if Canada can feel like Europe in spots, its major influence is North American.
Revising Canada's Food Guide
Canada's Food Guide is along the lines of MyPyramid in the United States. The Senate said changes should "be evidence based," something Republicans in the States struggle to understand. The report said the focus should "apply meal-based rather than nutrient-based principles."
The language sounds great but the statement isn't clear whether that is a focus on food vs. vitamins or the practical nature of how foods fit on a MyPlate concept. The Food Guide should describe the benefits of fresh, whole foods and "make strong statements about restricting consumption of highly processed foods." Too often, the advice doesn't make that distinction.
The Canadian Senate noted that revising the food guide should not "include representatives of the food or agriculture industries." The train between Monsanto and government in the States is a very popular route.
Government subsidies for healthy food
The Senate report wants a study on the "potential means of increasing the affordability of healthy foods including, but not limited to, the role of marketing boards, food subsidies and the removal or reduction of existing taxes."
Canada already has a Nutrition North program to help subsidize the cost of food in the northern territories. Folks who live up there can debate about whether the program has been effective. But Canada does have a subsidy infrastructure in place.
Introducing a public awareness campaign
This sounds like an old idea but includes new nuggets such as "Most of the healthiest food doesn't require a label." The Canadian government runs all sorts of ads promoting what it does to help citizens. Using some of the ad time to promote healthier eating would be a marvelous use of resources, especially with effective statements such as the one listed above. Other suggested themes are meal preparation and enjoyment; reduced consumption of processed foods; and the link between poor diet and chronic disease.
Total Carbohydrates vs. Carbohydrates
U.S. labels feature "Total Carbohydrates" while Canadian labels list "Carbohydrates." The report said to "assess whether sugar and starch should be combined under the heading of total carbohydrate within the Nutrition Facts table." I've read the Canadian label as "Total Carbohydrates" based on what I've seen in the States. But this could also be read as saying "don't list sugars as a separate entity." That would be going backward.
Ban partially hydrogenated oils
Canada is actually behind the U.S. on this issue, though the U.S. allowed for an excessive transition period. The Senate report wants to ban partially hydrogenated oils.
Suggestions that made the big headlines
Ironically, the suggestions that generated the most ink on this subject are ones that don't have much chance to succeed.
Tax on sugar- and artificial-sweetened beverages
Glucose-fructose, what Canadians call high-fructose corn syrup, is rather rampant, especially in cheaper foods. As much as Americans complain about the cost of food, Canadians have more reason to complain, even if they are too polite to do so. Getting rid of the glucose-fructose subsides eliminate the need for the tax. Also, foods filled with glucose-fructose aren't subject to the tax. And areas in the U.S. that have imposed the tax haven't seen benefits.
Ban on food and drink advertising aimed at children
The Canadian Senate report wants to see if the Quebec ban on food advertising to children can be extended to the other provinces. The French language and dominance of French speaking media in the province has everything to do with why the ban has success. Even if the other provinces ban advertising food to children, many English speaking Canadians watch U.S. channels that have no such ban. Trying to convince the CRTC that CTV has to ban food ads to children but not CBS is an unique struggle in a country where the media dominance is from outside the borders.
The obesity reality in Canada
The Senate report notes that Canada is number 5 in the world for obese adults (U.S. is number 1) and that obesity has doubled in adults (⅔ are overweight or obese) and tripled in children since 1980.
Canada has a number of factors against improvement: importing of fruits and vegetables, weak Canadian dollar (which makes those imported fruits and vegetables more expensive), remote living situations, especially in the Maritimes and the northern residents, cold weather (which is why donuts and poutine do so well).
The Canadian Senate wants more information with some deadlines related to December 2016. We will keep our eye on this story to see if Canada makes significant progress on these issues.