Health Canada unveils proposed new food labels

As Canadian health officials continue to grapple with an ongoing obesity crisis, the federal government has released new details about their plan designed to shrink this country’s growing waistlines.

Health Minister Ginette Petitipas Taylor and Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam unveiled parts of Canada’s proposed Healthy Eating Strategy Friday in Ottawa — more than a year after the strategy was first proposed.

If adopted, Health Canada would require “a front-of-package nutrition symbol on foods high in saturated fat, sugars and/or sodium” based on thresholds that correspond to the recommend daily value. Sugar, saturated fat and sodium when consumed in excess levels are linked to higher risk to chronic diseases.

Four possible designs have been proposed — with the final label to be decided based on Canadian feedback and consumer research, along with detail specifics of where the label should be placed on the package. None of the symbols are shaped like stop signs, nor triangles that look like warning symbols — something a consulting report prepared last year for Health Canada had considered.

Petitpas said the labels were designed to help consumers make healthier choices. All four designs, she said were “good” options.

The size of the new labels would be determined based on the size of the package.

Food and Consumer Products Canada welcomed the government’s decision to conduct consumer research on the proposed labels. In a release, the group said it is currently working on research of its own and would be “pleased to collaborate with Health Canada.”

Any selected front of pack labelling, FCPC said, must be “simple, fact and science-based, informative and transparent.”

“The ubiquity of sugar, saturated fat and sodium in the food supply has had catastrophic effects on health,” Dr. Jan Hux, president of Diabetes Canada, said in a statement which characterized the mandatory front-of-pack labelling as a “positive step forward.”

Health Canada said Friday an estimated 50 per cent of Canadian food products would be required to have a front-of-pack label if the policy took effect today. Officials told reporters they expect that figure could drop, given the four-year transition period as manufacturers adjust to the new rules.

The proposed threshold amounts vary depending on whether a product is a pre-packed food item, a pre-packaged meal or main dish, or if its targeted consumer is a child between one and four years of age and vary by recommended serving size, in grams. A 50g serving size will be stipulated for products like sauces, salad dressings, condiments, breakfast cereals, snack bars and coffee cream.

Prepackaged meals and main dishes

Foods intended solely for children 1 to 4 years of age*

Certain foods would be exempted from the front-of-pack labeling requirement, Health Canada said Friday.

For instance, foods that are not required to display a Nutrition Facts table, like most foods sold at farmer’s markets, are exempted as are foods where there is “evidence that the food provides a protective effect on health.” Those include foods like whole milk and two per cent milk (beneficial to younger children), olive oil, canola oil, fruits and vegetables without added sugar and sodium.

The farmers market exception, the federal health minister said, was designed to avoid burdening small producers.

Foods, like honey, where the labeling would be considered “redundant,” are also exempted from the front-of-pack requirements proposed.

Front-of-pack labeling wasn’t the only proposed change put forward by Health Canada Friday.

The federal government wants to crack down on claims like “no sugar added” on products like fruit juice, which manufacturers have historically used to differentiate themselves from other juice products that have added sugar, but doesn’t reflect juice’s overall high sugar content.

The new strategy would also see an increase in the amount of vitamin D required to be added to milk and margarine to help Canadians meet the recommended intake levels, updated in 2011.

“Under the new regulations this will be 2 μg/100 mL for milk and 26 μg/100 g for margarine. This is approximately twice the current requirement,” Health Canada documents said.

Meanwhile, the federal government is repealing a labeling requirement that  foods containing high-intensive sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame-potassium and neotame are stipulated specifically on the product’s main panel. The sweeteners would still be required to be listed in the ingredient list so that all sweeteners are labeled the same.

However, for medical reasons, foods sweetened with aspartame would still be required to include the statement: “Phenylketonurics: contains phenylalanine” or a statement to the effect that aspartame contains phenylalanine.”

“This statement would appear in bold type at the end of the list of ingredients,” the document notes.

Health Canada is also revising the definitions for hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils and will remove all references to partially hydrogenated oils from its regulations.

The federal health department introduced a ban for partially hydrogenated oils in September 2017, which takes effect in September 2018. Partially hydrogenated oils are the main source of industrially-produced trans fats in foods.

Canadians will have until April 26 this year to provide public comment on the proposal, with a planned transition period in place until December 2022.  The regulations will take effect upon publication of the regulations in the federal government’s publication Canada Gazette II – with the exception of the vitamin D requirement.

Publication in Canada Gazette II is expected by the end of 2018.

The new vitamin D amount will be delayed by six months “because manufacturers need to be compliant with the new Nutrition Facts table and the new mandatory vitamin D levels at the same time,” the department said.

Friday’s announcement did not include new details on Health Canada’s ongoing revisions of the Canada Food Guide.

In 2014, more than 14 million Canadian adults said they were overweight or obese, according to Statistics Canada data. Another 467,969 Canadian children fall into the same category.

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