Canada’s new food labels…everything you need to know (including what you can ignore)

Jessica Penner, RDNutrition, Smarten Up, Virtual Grocery Store Tour2 Comments

Health Canada recently announced changes to the food labels found on packaged foods in Canada. These changes are super helpful for consumers! 

Don’t worry, I’ll explain how.

But first let me complain a bit about how long it will take for these changes to take effect. Unfortunately for us, food companies have five years to implement the mandatory changes. So by the time they all get on board it will probably be time to revise the rules again! #WhySoSlow

skyrocketing usefulness for Canada’s food labels

As you can see, the appearance of the nutrition facts hasn’t changed too much. 

new food labels for canada

Photo source: healthycanadians.gc.ca

But the usefulness of the labels has skyrocketed!

food labels are now more clear about serving sizes

The new food labels will be much more clear about what’s going on inside the food package they’re labelling. Which is good, right? I mean, these food labels have one job: tell you about the nutrition of the food they’re on. They should do it as clearly as possible.

directly compare apples to apples

One of the main uses of food labels is to compare the nutrition of products while you’re grocery shopping, and this will now be much easier to do. With the old labels, companies could set any serving size for their product, making them really hard to compare. Cereal A might say that a serving is 30g while Cereal B says a serving is 50g. To compare the two you have to attempt some mental math, which leaves a lot of room for error. Especially when your kids won’t stop asking for the Trix cereal because the box has a cute rabbit on it that they’ve seen on TV. (Don’t you just love food marketing directed at kids?)

With the new labels, there will be a standard serving size, so you really can compare apples to apples, oranges to oranges, and cereals to cereals. 

With the new labels, there will be a standard serving size, so you really can compare apples to apples, oranges to oranges, and cereals to cereals. 

stop trying to figure out what a gram is

The label will now show a common unit of measurement. Instead of just showing a serving size in grams, they will be in cups. Most people have no idea how to visually estimate 30g. But many people can visualize cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons. This makes it a lot easier to determine how many reference servings you have just eaten or plan to eat.

no more misleading measurements

With the new labeling laws, any food package that you’d probably eat in one sitting will have to show the nutrition information for the whole container. In the past, you could buy a 500 ml (2 cup) bottle of chocolate milk, but the nutrition facts would be shown for 1 cup. Many people found this to be misleading, since you’d probably assume that the nutrition info is for the whole bottle. 

relevant micronutrients of interest

The old labels would list the information for these micronutrients (vitamins and minerals):

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Calcium
  • Iron

The new labels will have these instead:

  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Iron

The changes reflect the micronutrients that many Canadians aren’t getting enough of. There’s a reasonable chance you’re not getting enough potassium, calcium or iron in your diet. These minerals are on the label so that you can easily choose foods that have more of them.

Since people are generally getting enough Vitamin A and Vitamin C these days, those are no longer listed. Taking out unnecessary information lets you focus on what’s really important!

Additionally, while the old label only listed the percentage of your recommended daily intake, the new ones will show the actual amount by weight (milligrams).  I won’t get into the details of this (since it’s probably not that interesting to the average person) but this is SUPER helpful for dietitians who are planning medical diets! 

much ado about sugar!

Sugar is the bad guy these days, and while I’m not saying there are no good reasons for this, it kind of reminds me of the fearmongering about fat in the 90s.

Anyways, in order to provide more information about sugar, the US recently decided that their updated food labels will have to list the amount of ADDED sugars in a food. The Canadian labels will not display this info. Many, many, many Dietitians are upset about this.

You might be wondering why Dietitians care about the sugar ADDED specifically. After all, our bodies process sugar the  same way, whether it’s naturally found in the food or added in processing. The body doesn’t ask where the sugar came from. All sugar looks the same to our intestines.

You’re right, naturally occurring sugars aren’t inherently healthier than added sugar.

BUT, when sugar is part of a whole food, it comes along with many other nourishing components such as water and fibre. Among other benefits, these other elements make it more difficult and time-consuming to  consume the sugar. See this video for a visual demonstration of how much easier it is to consume sugar that’s added to orange juice, compared to eating the sugar naturally found in oranges. 

 

       

To put it simply, buying foods with added sugars in them make it more likely that you will consume an excess amount of sugar.

This is why health experts are upset that there’s no distinction made between the two types of sugar. If the average consumer is quickly scanning a label for signs of healthfulness, they are not going to get the full picture when they see the amount of sugar in a product. 

a dietitian’s rant

One word of warning about these new food labels: they include one part that is completely bunk!

Yes, that’s right. You can ignore an entire figure on these labels.

This is the figure that tells you what percentage of your maximum recommended daily total sugar intake is found in that food. This would be helpful, if it were supported by any evidence. But there is NO research available to determine a recommendation for an upper limit on total sugars.

The Institute of Medicine is the organization responsible for analyzing the research and making daily recommended amounts for each age group and gender. When it came to sugar, they didn’t set a recommended amount, since it’s not an essential nutrient and there wasn’t enough data to determine a maximum amount. 

So I’m calling “BROWN SUGAR!” That’s what my grade 8 teacher said instead of BS.

I’m calling BS on the “percentage of daily recommended total sugar intake” you’ll find on the new food labels.

The World Health Organization recently established an upper limit on ADDED sugars, since there is research available to make those calculations. The Canadian label folks should have included a recommended daily value percentage for ADDED sugars, instead of using a figure that is COMPLETELY USELESS!

But that’s just my opinion. End rant.

an improved ingredient list

I nearly forgot about the ingredient list. In short, they’ve made it easier to find and read! The same laws are still in place for labeling allergens. The nine most common food allergens in Canada need to be listed in the ingredient list, in a “contains” statement or in a “may contains” statement if there’s risk of cross contamination at the manufacturing stage. 

conclusion

So that’s it! The new food labels will make it easier to read the information, easier to compare foods to other foods, and easier to see how many critical micronutrients are in the foods. They missed the boat on the sugars issue, but I’m still pretty happy with the changes overall. 

What do you think? Will the new labels make it easier for you to make healthy eating decisions?

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2 Comments on “Canada’s new food labels…everything you need to know (including what you can ignore)”

  1. I like the new labels a lot. When I saw the % sugars thing, I thought that was super weird. Then I read your rant, and felt validated in my gut reaction. Good job, Jessica, in bringing this to our attention!!

    1. Glad you enjoyed the sugars part! Jeremy thought it was too much of an exclusively Dietitian thing. But I told him that sugars are so hot right now!

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