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Food Guide’s reality check

No matter what Canadians think, the food guide is a bid deal.

But it can be much more influential than it is now. Public institutions, schools, universities and community-based organizations look to the food guide as a reflection of what our fundamental nutritional principles should be.

On the whole, the Canada’s Food Guide is looked upon as a symbol of our food-related values as a country. But past guides have failed us. Health Canada indicates that more than 60% of Canadians are overweight, and four out of five of us are at risk of developing heart disease.

These are disturbing statistics and should justify a call for major changes. Solely blaming the food guide for these problems may be only a slight exaggeration, but the guide probably didn’t help, either. Health Canada is now working on a new guide and has demonstrated a very different attitude towards industry in recent weeks.

Health Canada has made it clear that lobbyists and industry pundits will be excluded from consultations for the next edition of Canada’s Food Guide. While this is likely welcome news for some, it is also a message we have heard for several decades, by successive governments.

The reality is that it is always going to be challenging to outright exclude anybody from a very public process, no matter who gets appointed to relevant working committees. The “food community” is a small world and many individuals have long-lasting relationships with key groups. Health Canada’s grandiose statement of eliminating the food industry’s influence is impractical, at best.

Industry’s involvement in the food guide creation process is decades old. In fact, the intent of the of the first food guides, back in 1942, was to entice demand for Canadian commodities during the second world war. In those days, concerns of food security were deeply acute and needed to be addressed by making Canada a food-sovereign nation. Agricultural embargoes were used more often back then.

But with a more open food economy, things have changed. As food geopolitics have shifted, consumers have different choices and expectations. The role of industry has changed as well.

The industry could, in a measured fashion, contribute greatly to a discussion concerning the modernization of the Canada’s Food Guide. Most could speak intelligently to logistical challenges, research and development constraints, recent trends, the realities of food distribution, and competitiveness.

It is misguided to continuously suggest industry’s input into the Canada’s Food Guide is malicious. Industry is out to make a profit, naturally, but it is also there to feed us, whether we like or not. It can also clearly draw the line between what is economically possible and the arbitrarily ideological.

Historically, where things went too far was when commodity-driven recommendations were incorporated in the guide, supported by weak science. For example, encouraging Canadians to have two cups of milk per day is absurd. Dairy Farmers of Canada may not like this but Canada in 2016 is a different place. Many immigrants just don’t drink milk. As well, many other consumers suffer from intolerances and allergies. The food guide should move on and embrace the existence of other calcium-rich products like tofu, almond butter, and green vegetables.

We have many more choices than we had in 1942. Nonetheless, given that we a closed dairy system at odds with many other sectors in the food industry, expanding beyond dairy could be politically risky. Should the next food guide not encourage Canadians to drink more milk, the industry will most likely retaliate, regardless of whether they are involved in the consulting process or not. Statistics related to food consumption in Canada suggest that Canadians are moving on. Consumption of milk per capita has dropped steadily over the last 30 years or more.

Meat consumption is the other elephant in the room. Given that a recent Dalhousie University study suggest that 37% of Canadians are actively looking for a variety of alternative sources of protein, the guide needs a reality check.

The next Canadian food guide should be about sound science devoid of political maneuvering, but it doesn’t mean industry should be kept out of the process entirely.

What matters most is how the guide will resonate with citizens and how it can be used. The current version is really a tool for dieticians, not for regular consumers.

Broad-based validation is key to making the guide applicable to our daily lives. Regular citizens, parents, teachers, physical education enthusiast, culinary experts, and many more community-based groups, including food banks, should be consulted. Perhaps Canada will need two guides: one for professionals, and the other for regular consumers. Both would be designed to achieve similar outcomes, but messages would be articulated differently. The consumer version should also recognize that food costs money.

Food economics should also be taken into account in the new guide to make it more financially realistic, particularly for those without means.

Celebrating Canadian food cultures will also be imperative for the next food guide. Merely considering  what Canadians should eat is no longer enough. Food is about sharing, celebrating, and connecting. The context in which food is consumed should be addressed in our next food guide. With or without industry’s involvement, many will remain skeptical until we see the end product.

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