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Keeping nutritional labels simple has its limitations

When it comes to food, the current government is big on consultations. Health Canada has recently launched online public consultations and will be conducting consumer research to assess which formula works best for front-of-package labelling. Four models have been presented as Health Canada appears to want to keep its options open. From the looks of it, however, all of the logos look the same. Regardless, saturated fats, sugar and sodium are targeted and are intended to be predominantly placed on the labels on all packaged goods sold in Canada.

The new suggested label policy appears to be straightforward. All food products that include more than 15% of the daily recommended consumption of each ingredient will be labelled at the top of the package. Raw commodities with natural ingredients, such as maple syrup or meat products, will be exempt, which makes perfect sense.

Front-of-package nutrition symbols and notices are presumably noticeable and require minimal prior nutrition knowledge to use. The label needs to be clear and simple, which is exactly what Health Canada is proposing. But simplicity does not necessarily guarantee a confusion-free experience.

The policy, as presented by Health Canada, appears to over-value certain nutrients. This may lead consumers away from buying certain nutrients and encourage the purchase of others. For example, certain packaged cheeses may be high in fat but are rich in other important nutrients such as vitamins C, D and calcium. One good step is that calories are not emphasized. Studies suggest calories are overused and can interfere with selecting a healthier product.

Beyond the proposed front-of-packaging labels, one issue that should be underscored is the accuracy of the nutritional labels. Many studies have shown that sodium and fats are often underreported. This should be monitored more often to make sure labels are accurate. This could also reduce chances of seeing fraudulent food products and cases of adulteration.

Simplicity has its challenges and limitations, and industry has expressed concerns and even some level of opposition. A likely beneficial outcome would be to see food manufacturers return to their drawing boards to reformulate some of the food products that they have been marketing for decades. Some could choose to discontinue entire product lines. It will be interesting to see how industry adapts.

Given the pressures of everyday life, Health Canada’s plan is likely the most effective way to let consumers know what to look for. In order for the new labelling rules to be effective, the labels should go a little further. The new labelling policy should have colour and words that indicate levels. Studies show the traffic light system is the best example for such a design. According to global studies, consumers exposed to the green-yellow-red scheme of colours are three times more likely to identify the healthier food products than consumers using other systems. Over time, consumers understand the health value of food products can be assessed in relative terms. Right now, Health Canada’s approach is dangerously binary and does not allow for some interpretation and enhanced nutritional literacy.

Some are suggesting the new plan does not go far enough. Several groups and experts claim cartoons and colourful packaging ought to be banned. It is known that products that seek to engage children with their packaging are significantly less nourishing than foods that do not. However, with clear and unassuming front-of-package labels, the information would provide parents with the necessary tools to properly make decisions for themselves and their children. There is a delicate balance between giving the proper information to consumers and overprotecting society in general. Overprotection rarely entices consumers to become better educated about important issues such as proper nutrition. New policies should encourage consumers to make healthier choices, and not necessarily protecting them from themselves.

Overall, Health Canada appears to be striking the right balance between simplicity and effectiveness. There also appears to be some momentum towards more of these new labelling policies around the world, so Canada is not a lone wolf. Several countries, including Australia, are looking at making changes. Importers will not see this new approach as an obstacle, or at least, it should not become a deterrent that could potentially limit trades. For our own food security and economic welfare, this is something we need to keep in mind as we try to empower consumers with more information about the food they eat.

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