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How simplifying and standardizing food labels can help with better food choices

A version of this commentary appeared in the Montréal Gazette, the Huffington Post and the Hill Times

Most Canadians don't understand food nutition labelsAs January comes to an end, those who vowed to eat better in 2015 have probably already given up. Not very surprising, considering that most people grossly underestimate the amount of calories they consume, and underestimate their fat, salt and sugar consumption, even after consulting nutrition labels. According to Statistics Canada, half of women and about seven in 10 men in Canada consume more calories than needed and as many as 25 percent have fat intakes above the recommended value.

The truth is, even when Canadians want to make healthier choices, many don’t know how to begin.  And our food labels don’t help.

Studies show that most Canadians don’t comprehend the percent daily value or the variety of units (g, ml, percentages) common on food nutrition labels. One Canadian study showed that less than half of participants could identify the number of calories in a soft-drink bottle even after consulting the nutritional labels. Half of participants who saw a “110 calories per serving” label believed this was the number of calories for the entire bottle, when, in fact, the bottle in question contained several servings (264 calories).

Pre-packaged foods in Canada are required to display a nutrition facts table. But regulation does not apply to foods served in restaurants, and serving sizes are not standardized and front-of-packaging logos and health claims are mostly unregulated.

Nutrition labels are relatively inexpensive to implement and give consumers the autonomy to choose what they will eat, while being informed. Small changes could go a long way to improving public understanding, and possibly, public health.

Modifying regulations to simplify nutritional information on food products and imposing standardized and nutrition labelling at restaurants could increase consumer understanding, positively affect food choices and reduce caloric consumption. However, we need governments to ensure that these claims are evidence-based and easily understood.

In a step in the right direction, the federal government recently asked Canadians what they would like to see on food product labels.  It turns out, quite a lot.

Canadians want easier-to-read labels, more legible fonts, simpler terms and the use of colours and symbols. The government is considering making adjustments, such as regrouping all sugars, changing font sizes and standardizing portion sizes. These are welcome changes, but more comprehensive solutions are needed.

The U.K. adopted a colour coded-system: traffic lights colours indicate if a product contains a little or a lot of a certain nutrient. As a result, supermarkets noticed an increase in the sale of fruits and vegetables. One study showed that putting the number of minutes of walking it would take to burn off calories consumed on product packages helped reduce caloric consumption.

Unfortunately, in Canada, front-of-package symbols and health claims are mostly designed by the food industry, are often confusing and some are not based on proper scientific evidence. Seven years ago, the Canadian Standing Committee on Health asked the federal government for a mandatory, standardized, simple, front of package labelling. They are still waiting. Instead, in 2012 the government chose to stop policing nutrition claims on food labels for budgetary reasons.

Regulations for restaurant nutrition information also needs policy reform. Consider this: Canadians consistently underestimate the calories in restaurant meals, sometimes by up to 900 calories, says one study. Even registered dieticians underestimated the calories in a restaurant meal by 200 to 600 calories.  With nearly 40% of Canadians eating out a few times per week, regulating menu labels should be a priority.

In November, Ontario introduced new menu labelling legislation. If passed, all restaurants, convenience stores and groceries with more than 20 locations would be required to post calories on menus and menu boards. Will other provinces follow suit?

The food industry is in business to make money. Many are constantly creating and marketing products that encourage overconsumption of sugar, fat and salt that are contributing significantly to the obesity epidemic. Mandatory labelling will possibly be helpful to motivated, educated consumers who want to make healthier choices, but there is also a need for stronger environmental ‘nudges’ such as increased pricing on sugar sweetened beverages and reduced portion sizes to more fully address the obesity epidemic.

But we can at least begin with proper food nutrition labels so Canadians can make informed decisions about their food choices.

John Millar is a Clinical Professor at the School for Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia where he is involved in teaching and research in public health leadership, health policy and international health. 

Mélanie Meloche-Holubowski  is a journalist intern for EvidenceNetwork.ca and is a webmaster and journalist for Radio-Canada in Montreal.

January 2015

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