Dolly Leach used to hurry down supermarket aisles, reaching for her favorite foods and plopping them into her shopping cart. Then, at a checkup last year, the Montreal housewife learned her cholesterol level was too high. Now, Leach, 68, compares labels and carefully examines the fine print before deciding what to buy. “I check for saturated fat and cholesterol,” she says. “If one package says zero fat and another says 0.3 grams of fat, I’ll take the zero.” Leach isn’t the only one. A survey by the Ottawabased National Institute of Nutrition last fall revealed that 75 per cent of Canadians rely on product labels as their main source of information about food. The problem, nutritionists say, is labels are marketing tools—and not always trustworthy. “With some products,” says Bruce Holub, a professor of nutritional sciences at Ontario’s University of Guelph, “the consumer is in a nutritional minefield.” Canada’s food-labelling regulations and guidelines offer limited protection to consumers. While all packaged food must have a list of ingredients, manufacturers are not required to provide information about nutrients—such as the amount of fat, fibre or iron—unless they make a specific claim. For example, when a food is promoted as low-fat or fat-free, the label must declare the amount of fat it contains; the label on a “light” product must specify how it is light, whether in calories, color or texture. Upstaged by the United States, whose extensive new labelling rules went into effect last May, Health Canada intends to propose changes in nutrition labelling early this year. Margaret Cheney, the department’s chief of nutrition evaluation, maintains that labels are improving but consumers should read them carefully. She adds: “You shouldn’t have to have a PhD to read between the lines.” Critics go even further, saying the labels are downright misleading. “There is valuable information on labels,” says Judy Fraser Arsenault, a research associate in the human ecology department at Halifax’s Mount Saint Vincent University. “But some manufacturers use claims as a marketing ploy. It’s buyer beware unless they read the fine print.”
Food producers insist they are not bucking the better-labelling trend. “Manufacturers are strong proponents of making labels clearer,” says Laurie Curry, a vice-president with the Grocery Products Manufacturers of Canada. Currently, critics say, food producers can play by government rules and still lead consumers astray. Toronto dietitian Rosie Schwartz points to “cholesterol-free” cake mixes as easy bait for unwary shoppers who might not note—or understand—the fine print. Says Schwartz: “The dry mix is indeed cholesterol-free. But if you make it according to instructions, the fully iced, beautiful piece of cake pictured on the package is not cholesterol-free”—because the recipe may call for milk and whole eggs.
“Extra light” olive oil is another common fat trap. Many people believe it has fewer calories, but it is in fact so refined that it has less flavor. “Light in flavor,” notes the small print on the back, satisfying regulators if not critics. “When people go to the supermarket,” says Schwartz, “they are running—they don’t always have time to read carefully.”
Even with careful reading, consumers remain unaware of one harmful form of fat that now slips through labelling loopholes. “One of the worst of the fats—trans-fatty acids—does not have to be confessed to the public,” says Holub. (Trans-fatty acids are formed when liquid vegetable oils are hardened into solid fats, a process that extends shelf life.) Like saturated fats, they increase the risk of heart disease by raising the level of cholesterol in the blood. But they also endanger the heart by lowering the so-called good, protective form of cholesterol. Holub says: “Many products marketed as cholesterol-free are actually high in trans-fatty acids and likely to increase— not decrease—the risk of heart disease.”
Few would question the consumers’ right to know what is in the food they eat. But how much should go on a label? “I would like to see more information,” says Tom Clandinin, a researcher at the University of Alberta’s department of nutritional science in Edmonton. “But it carries the risk that most consumers don’t, for example, know what a trans-fatty acid is and don’t know what to do with that information.” Suzanne Hendricks, president of the National Institute of Nutrition, worries that “the list of chemicals is already too long” and advocates clearer, rather than more, information. Canada, she notes, has a unique problem: with two official languages, space is especially limited.
GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS PLAN TO OFFER CHANGES IN NUTRITION LABELLING FOR DISCUSSION EARLY THIS YEAR
For better or worse, Canada also has its own way of doing things. Unlike the United States, where Congress simply imposed extensive labelling requirements, Canadian officials are trying to reach a consensus between manufacturers and consumers. That process, says Health Canada’s Cheney, could take up to two years. Meanwhile, Cheney advises consumers to pressure manufacturers to put more information on labels. “Consumer demand,” she says, “is the best carrot.” Less-patient advocates might prefer a larger government stick.
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