Health Canada is proposing new regulations that will make it easier for shoppers to identify whether a packaged food is high in saturated fat, sugar or sodium.
If the regulations are approved, it means that a warning label would be prominently affixed to the front of all packaged foods that are high in these nutrients – up to half of packaged foods on the shelves.
WATCH: Health Canada’s plans to change food labels
“Canada is facing an undeniable growing burden of chronic disease,” said Dr. Supriya Sharma, chief medical adviser to Health Canada.
Two in five Canadian adults live with a common chronic disease like heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer, she said, and two-thirds of Canadian adults are overweight or obese.
“The good news is that we know that these chronic diseases and conditions are largely preventable. Poor diets are a primary cause of chronic disease in Canada.”
The government hopes that these labels could help people choose healthier foods.
“The front label is what consumers see first on the packaged food when they are grocery shopping,” said Alfred Aziz, chief of Health Canada’s Nutrition Regulations and Standards Division.
Having warnings on the front label will provide quick and easy guidance for busy consumers or people who have trouble understanding the detailed Nutrition Facts table, said Aziz. He hopes that these labelling requirements gradually encourage food producers to reduce the sugar, saturated fat and sodium content of their foods.
Health Canada has developed four versions of the warning label and will pick one after public consultation and consumer research.
Affects many packaged foods
Foods will be required to carry the label if their sodium, sugar or saturated fat content is above 15 per cent of the recommended daily value, or 30 per cent, if it’s a pre-packaged meal or main dish. The requirements will also be adjusted based on an expected serving size, such as for things like coffee cream or candies, so that foods that are concentrated sources of saturated fat, sugar or sodium will still be labelled even though people don’t generally eat much at one time.
Some products, like milk (though not chocolate milk), most vegetable oils and some basic ingredients like white sugar, table salt or honey would be exempt.
When first drafting the regulations in 2016, Health Canada estimated that around 50 per cent of packaged foods would have to carry a warning label, though Aziz said that the proposed regulations have changed a little since that original estimate, so the number of affected products could also have changed.
“We will have to see as we move forward because we made some revisions to the proposal but also we’re giving industry a transition period of four years, so they may be able to reformulate some of their products and avoid the symbol,” he said.
Health Canada expects the regulations to be finalized later this year and is proposing that they go fully into effect in 2022. Some changes could still be made before they are finalized.
The Canadian Public Health Association and Heart & Stroke both applauded the regulations.
WATCH: Health Canada launches new front-of-package warning label. Allison Vuchnich reports.
“Millions of Canadians are living with diet-related disease, taking a huge toll on their health and their families,” said Yves Savoie, CEO of Heart & Stroke.
“Adding a clearly visible and easy to understand symbol on the front of unhealthy food and beverage packages will help steer people away from these products and support them to make healthy choices.”
Aspartame and sweetener labelling
Health Canada is also proposing changes to how products containing the artificial sweeteners aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame-potassium and neotame are labelled.
These sweeteners will no longer have to be identified separately on the main label of the product, and will instead just appear in the ingredients list. No other sweeteners have to carry this kind of separate label, said Aziz, so this change will mean all sweeteners are labelled the same way.
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“Aspartame has been a concern for patients with a disease called phenylketonuria, or PKU, which is a metabolic disease,” said Sharma. “There will still be labelling on the package to alert patients with that metabolic disease that it is containing aspartame so they will be aware.”
This warning will be at the end of the ingredients list, in bold type.
Most people can safely consume aspartame so it shouldn’t be a specific concern for them, she said.