Monday, October 25, 2010

Health Canada rolls out the most useless nutrition campaign in history.

Readers of my blog are likely well aware that when it comes to Health Canada and nutrition I've got low expectations. That said, not even my lowered expectations were enough to prepare me for the mind-numbingly stupid new nutritional education campaign unveiled last Friday at a Longo's supermarket in Toronto.

The campaign had fanfare with a formal press release from Health Canada touting a, "Major Nutrition Labelling Initiative", replete with an important feeling press embargo and a razzle dazzle press conference with our own Minister of Health.

Multiple reporters contacted me prior to the event asking if I knew what was up, and a few opined that it was odd that Health Canada hadn't provided them with much pre-information. Of course it was only after the press conference that we all understood why they weren't given much - there wasn't anything to provide.

In a nutshell the hoopla was all stirred up for Health Canada to teach Canadians the following two points:

If a product has less than 5% of its percent daily value of whatever, that's a little.

If a product has greater than 15% of its percent daily value of whatever, that's a lot.
That's it, that's all, see you later folks.

Oh, and they've also got a shiny new website that tells you pretty much the same thing.

So here's the rub.

Canadians don't know a heck of a lot about nutrition and Health Canada's recommendation that you "use" the percent daily values to guide choices assumes far too much.

For example, let's say you're trying to compare two pretty much identical products that differ only in Vitamin A and Vitamin C levels - should you choose the one with more Vitamin A or the one with more Vitamin C? I don't know the answer, so why should you?

Here's another. What matters more? High levels of fibre and iron or low levels of sodium and saturated fat?

Most amazingly?

You know what's the very first number on our nutrition facts panel? Calories. You know what this latest campaign, rolled out explicitly with obesity as part of its rationale avoids teaching about? Calories.

How difficult would it have been for Health Canada to on their percent daily value page include a calculator to help determine a person's caloric needs and then instruct them on how to use that number to navigate nutrition fact panel calories?

Ultimately what Health Canada has done is to decline to actually affect a useful nutrition facts panel reform - one which would have done such things as eliminate the arbitrary, non-real world servings sizes, disallow the use of multiple sugar synonyms to make products appear as if sugar's only a minor ingredient, get rid of those micronutrient levels that no Canadians, not even nutrition professionals, really know how to utilize and serve only to confuse (really, do we have so much scurvy and night blindness that we actually need to list Vitamins C & A?), and instead they came up with a lame dog and pony show promoting mindless nutritionism and the dangerous notion that eating, "healthy" somehow protects weight.

I guess I've got to reset my Health Canada nutrition bar lower. Sadly, I think that'll now mean digging.

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  1. Anonymous7:31 am

    You're absolutely right, Yoni. What an incredibly disappointing piece of work.

    As a health professional with a keen interest in nutrition related health matters and someone who has been educated in that area I even find myself confused about what they mean! What are they trying to get at? And if someone who works in health care for a living and takes extra time outside of her career and devotes herself to nutrition education cannot understand the meaning of this latest campaign, I hate to think what those who did not understand nutrition in the first place are going to get out of it..... nothing (which is exactly what I will get out of it too).

  2. I agree with your Yoni. I am new to your blog and look forward to more.

    In your opinion what would you like to see noted on the nutrition label.

    I would think something as simple as have GOOD CHOICES in GREEN (fibre, vitamins) and BAD CHOICES in RED (saturated fat, sodium)?

    Your thoughts. Thank you.

  3. Anonymous9:05 am

    Totally agree that calorie guidelines for the average person should have been given. Nutrition Action has good ideas for reforming the label, see page 10 of their report

  4. Anonymous11:11 am

    Is Health Canada still demonizing saturated fat?

    Yoni, would love to hear your thoughts on the "paleo diet"...

  5. On the related subject of packaging, the Vancouver Sun today had a surprisingly good article about food labels making health claims.

    View health claims made by probiotic foods with a wary eye.

    Wouldn't it have been great if Health Canada had called a press conference to announce that they would no longer allow misleading and scientifically unsubstantiated health claims on food labels?

  6. It is disappointing to see so much fanfare for the absence of a message. If the government really wants to promote health, they have to start without assumptions regarding what people know about nutrition. Another option is to teach more nutrition content in schools so that children can train their parents in the process.

  7. Mavis1:05 pm

    This is a disaster.