Can Trudeau make Canada healthier?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has certainly set lofty goals for Jane Philpott, Canada’s new Minister of Health.
In his mandate letter to Philpott, on top of paving the way for the long-promised legalization of marijuana and developing a national strategy for increasing awareness of concussions, Trudeau encourages her to “promote public health” by introducing a host of new food-related restrictions.
Calling for a clamp-down on the “commercial marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children,” new regulations on trans fats and salt in processed food and even improvements to food labels, the new Liberal government seems to be taking a buffet approach to promoting healthy eating.
Statistics Canada estimates more then 14 million Canadians are overweight or obese.
Many of these approaches have succeeded in other countries or in specific provinces and some – like the national advertising ban – were echoed in a report by a Senate committee earlier this year.
The reason for implementing these weight-cutting proposals has also never been more obvious. The same Senate committee found that Canada could be spending as much as $7.1 billion on treating obesity and because of lost productivity from obesity.
Statistics Canada estimates more than 14 million Canadians are overweight or obese.
Experts Divided Over Potential Benefits
Some experts are skeptical about the real benefits of any proposed restrictions. Dr. Jean-Phillippe Chaput, a research scientist specializing in obesity prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, says that nutritional regulations help fight obesity, but “for overall health and well-being” exercising daily is more important.
“Of course, both is always better.”
Others say that these regulations would need to be more drastic to create marked improvements in public health.
“Where we see healthy lifestyles is more tied to infrastructure,” says Dr. Rena Mendelson, who teaches in the school of nutrition at Ryerson University, “where people walk, where people use cars less, along with cultural values to be active as people.”
While it’s unlikely any proposed restrictions will create political strife, it’s worth analysing what effect they would actually have on Canada’s public health.
Sixteen of Canada’s largest food companies including Nestle, Kraft and McDonald’s have already joined together under the “Canadian Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.” These companies have pledged either not to advertise directly to school aged children, or to only market “healthier” products to them.
However, these voluntary guidelines are established in part by a committee of dietitians and nutritionists employed by the companies themselves. Under their criteria, “occasional snacks” such as chips can still be advertised to children, as long as the labeled serving size includes 8 grams of whole grain or 2 grams of fibre.
For decades, Quebec has enforced much stricter laws limiting marketing to children, including online “adver-gaming” – interactive games that promote products – and printed ads.
“The law isn’t perfect but it’s much better,” says Chaput, “you don’t want to see, say, Shrek drinking a coke. That sends a bad message to kids.”
But Mendelson says regulating children’s advertising in Canada may be challenging. “Children will still see US advertisers,” she says, “and of course Quebec has an easier time because of French-language TV.”
A study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that a two per cent increase in trans fats consumption results in a 23 per cent higher risk of coronary heart disease.
Last year, the United States Food and Drug Administration ruled that artificial trans fats were not “generally recognized as safe” and implemented a ban on the use of trans trans fats as an ingredient.
Health advocates in Canada have appealed for a similar ban for more than a decade. To date the government has relied on voluntary restrictions introduced by food manufacturers.
Chaput says the benefit of a ban would be in reducing the harmful effects of unhealthy foods.
“So people don’t change their eating habits, but by default it will become healthier.”
While the Canadian government has previously proposed voluntary restrictions and education, the Heart and Stroke Foundation reports the average Canadian consumes almost twice the recommended amount of sodium per day, putting them at risk for hypertension and heart disease.
Other countries such as Argentina or Finland, which established various mandatory restrictions on sodium, may inspire Canada’s approach. If the government won’t impose mandatory restrictions, improved labeling laws may be more effective than voluntary agreements.
“People see labels that say things like ‘less salt,’” says Chaput, “they make it look like a healthy option but it’s still unhealthy.”
From bilingual packaging to a host of product-specific requirements and nutritional facts, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has already established a long list of labeling requirements.
Mendelson is wary about the benefits of additional regulations, or if they will simply be the government’s way of “dumping responsibility on the food industry.”
“Most people already don’t use labels effectively,” she told me, “what we need is more education for the public.”
Chaput recommends a simpler system, like stop-light coloured stickers on box-fronts.
“Green is healthy, red is less healthy. It becomes easy to read,” he says, “Most people don’t even know what’s a protein or a carbohydrate.”
Header photo © Stuart Spivack.
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