New proposed nutrition labels give food industry a ‘free pass’: doctor

WATCH: Health Canada is targeting three areas of food labels, including the amount of sugar in pre-packaged foods. The goal is to make it easier for Canadians to make healthy choices. Jennifer Tryon explains.

TORONTO — An obesity specialist is weighing in on what he calls an “industry-friendly food label” proposed by Health Canada. His beef with it? One missing ingredient: added sugar.

“This is not a useful tool. It wasn’t a useful tool before. It’s a little bit better now. If I was grading it before, maybe I would have given it a D+. Now, I’d give it a C+. But it sure ain’t good,” said Dr. Yoni Freedhoff.

It was last year that Health Canada first proposed a number of changes meant to make nutrition labels easier to read. A consultation process followed, which reportedly saw 10,000 Canadians offer their feedback. On Friday, federal health minister Rona Ambrose presented the resulting amended proposal to mixed reviews.

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She promised that the new proposed labels will provide consumers with “a lot more information about sugar.” A couple of the key changes on that front:

  • Grouping of sugars: Different sugars, which are now dispersed throughout the ingredients under a variety of names, will be grouped together. That means you may see “sugar” jump to the top of the list for some products. “Before it was absolutely impossible to tell how much sugar was in a product,” Ambrose admitted.
  • Mandated %DV (Daily Value) for sugar: This will show people whether a product has a little (under 5% DV) sugar or a lot (over 15%). Ambrose said Canada is the first country in the world to mandate this.

Noticeably missing from the new version, though: an “added sugar” line. That would have allowed consumers to differentiate between natural sugar (found in fruit, for example) and added sugar (like corn syrup), which “provides extra calories but few or no nutritional benefits.”

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“When you lump everything together, and the sugars in milk and frozen fruit are treated the same as the sugars in Coca Cola, you are not helping to educate the public. You’re giving Coke a bit of a free pass and making those other sugars seem potentially risky,” said Freedhoff.

He also believes it doesn’t respect the sugar-intake recommendations of the World Health Organization and the Heart and Stroke Foundation — recommendations that, interestingly enough, Health Canada doesn’t actually have.

READ MORE: World eating too much sugar, says UN

“There’s no question the sugar lobby has put their desires before Health Canada.”

“I would definitely compare the food industry to the tobacco industry. We are seeing the same machinations of the food industry right now in terms of the way they are going about protecting their interests. And again, it’s not surprising. That is their job…What’s surprising is that we let them.”

When Global News asked Health Canada to address Freedhoff’s claims, Dr. William Yan told us: “It’s hard for me to comment on opinions like that. I can tell you that based on what I’m doing and my team, we look at all the evidence of science…everything we do is science-based.”

Yan, who is the director with the Bureau of Nutritional Sciences, added that “the science is still mixed” on sugar and “there is still no clear link over sugar consumption and a direct health outcome.”

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Many would wholeheartedly disagree with that claim, including Freedhoff. And it’s not just the lack of added sugar on nutrition labels Freedhoff finds problematic. He also takes issue with Canada’s Food Guide. One of his criticisms about it is that it currently lists juice (which packs a ton of sugar without the benefits of fibre) as a fruit.

READ MORE: Do you know how much sugar you’re eating? Sugar by the numbers

“As far as our GDP in this country goes, the largest single contribution to Canada’s GDP is food product manufacturing and agriculture. That’s a big consideration for the government. So it’s not surprising that they do seem to have a [Food] Guide right now that would make the food industry right now quite happy.”

In terms of the latest proposed label changes, Dietitians of Canada spokesperson Kate Comeau takes a more positive stance towards them.

“We are moving along faster than the United States has in this regard,” she said.

“There’s also a hope that maybe this…new %DV will actually encourage industry to reduce the amount of sugar in its products.”

“Parents are going to want to see products with less added sugar, so that actually might be a response to this new proposal.”

WATCH: Comeau ran through what the new proposed changes to nutrition labels mean for consumers.

Freedhoff is also optimistic, to an extent, about improvements around labelling and our Food Guide.

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“I do actually think that slowly we are seeing that ship turn but…there’s no question that most of the turning will be undermined as best they can by the industries whose products would be affected by change.

“At the end of the day, we live in a country where medicine is socialized. It’s very expensive to pay for the problems that are diet-relatable. And once we get to a point where we can no longer sustain health care as we know it here in this country, well, then politicians will be able to make changes.

“Even if those changes upset some very deep-pocketed constituents and industries.”

Industry partners will have a five-year period to implement any label changes that are decided on. First, though, Canadians will be consulted on the proposed changes for the next 75 days; and within 18 months after that, those changes will be published online. Only once that happens will the five-year period kick in.

“We did give industry a good lead time because we don’t want to impose it right away, but we expect to see them come online soon,” Ambrose said.

WATCH: Carmen Chai walks viewers through what they need to pay attention to on current nutrition labels.

Until the new labels finally show up on shelves, you may want to look out for these ingredients if you want to limit your sugar intake. Dietians of Canada spokesperson Lalitha Taylor also offers these practical strategies for cutting out sugar:

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  • Opt for water over pop or juice to satisfy thirst. That simple strategy can save you up to six teaspoons of sugar per cup.
  • Specialty coffee drinks can be another significant source of sugar. Aim to limit or avoid these beverages.
  • Eat out less and cook at home. That gives you more control over ingredients and less exposure to processed foods that are higher in sugar, fat and salt.
  • Experiment by reducing sugar by 1/3 in recipes when preparing food items like cookies, quickbreads, muffins and other desserts.
  • Spices, such as cinnamon, ginger, clove, and nutmeg can enhance the flavour profile without adding extra calories. Try using extracts, such as vanilla, almond, maple or lemon for their sugar-free sweet taste and flavour.

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