OTTAWA—The federal government wants to make it easier for consumers to choose healthy foods with front-of-package warnings on items that contain high levels of sodium, sugar or saturated fat—ingredients linked to chronic health problems like obesity, heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
Currently, consumers must check the nutrition facts table on the back of packages to see the sugar, sodium and saturated fat content.
Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor is proposing to make it easier for people to identify foods high in those ingredients by requiring standardized, prominent warning symbols on the front of food packages.
The symbols will “provide a clear and easy-to-understand visual that will make choosing the healthier options the easier option for Canadians,” she told a news conference late last week.
“Having this information available at a glance will allow us to make healthy decisions in seconds and will benefit every, single Canadian.”
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said two-thirds of Canadian adults and one-third of kids are overweight, which puts them at higher risk of a range of chronic diseases.
“The reality is that these chronic diseases are largely preventable by not smoking, being physically active on a regular basis and by eating nutritious foods that are low in saturated fat, sugars and sodium, which is in salt,” she said.
Petitpas Taylor was accompanied at the news conference by representatives of health advocacy groups such as Diabetes Canada, Dieticians of Canada and the Canadian Public Health Association, as well as the Retail Council of Canada. They lauded the proposed warning labels.
“We’ve all heard the troubling news that, in Canada, diet-related factors are now the leading risk factor of death,” said Yves Savoie, CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
“Unfortunately, millions of Canadians are living with diet-related disease, taking a huge toll on our health and on our families, not to mention on our economy.”
Foods high in one or more of the three ingredients, but which are nevertheless considered beneficial to health, will be exempted from the new package labelling requirements, including whole and two-per-cent milk (but not chocolate milk), most vegetable oils and fruits and vegetables without added saturated fat, sugars or sodium.
Foods such as raw, single-ingredient meats and those sold at farmers’ markets and roadside stands will also be exempted, as will foods on which a warning symbol would be redundant, such as table sugar and salt, honey and maple syrup.
“If you’re buying a bag of sugar, I don’t think we need to say that it’s high in sugar,” said Petitpas Taylor.
Health Canada is asking for public feedback on four possible symbols, which would be displayed in the upper quadrant of a package label—or the right quadrant when the package is wider than it is tall.
Public consultation on the symbols and proposed regulations will run until April 26.
Once the regulations are finalized, food manufacturers will have until December 2022 to comply with the new packaging requirements.
Health Canada estimates that about half of all food packages will require the new warning symbols, although that number could shrink if manufacturers use the transition period to decrease the levels of sodium, sugar and saturated fat in their products.
Petitpas Taylor said such symbols have been used for some years in Chile, which found that 18 per cent of products were reformulated so that they didn’t require the symbols.
The warning symbols will be required on foods that meet or exceed proposed thresholds.
For pre-packaged foods and foods intended solely for children between the ages of one and four, the proposed threshold is 15 per cent of the recommended daily intake of each of the three ingredients. For pre-packaged meals, the threshold rises to 30 per cent.
The government is also planning to amend regulations governing nutrient content claims, such as “no sugar added.” Officials said doing so would ensure, for example, that consumers are not confused by a claim that no sugar has been added to fruit juice which is naturally high in sugar and would therefore require a warning symbol.
Introduction of the warning symbols is one of three pillars of the government’s healthy eating strategy, which also includes restricting marketing of foods to kids and updating the Canada Food Guide.
Consultations on the food guide revisions have become controversial, with agriculture groups worrying that the government appears to be promoting a shift towards more plant-based diets, with less reliance on animal proteins.