Read the Label! (Understanding Nutrition Labels)

Training is everything.  The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.

– Mark Twain

Friday the major Canadian media outlets (CTV, CBC) carried a story about Health Canada launching a new campaign to help people understand nutrition labels.

Nutrition labels have been on packaged food in Canada for the last 22 years.  Around our house, we are always looking at the labels, comparing nutrient amounts across brands, and making generally just making day to day decisions about the foods we will eat.  For anybody who has never seen these labels, they list the percentage of the daily value (DV) required or recommended  amount of nutrients found in a specified serving size.  For example, a 100g serving of something might contain 5% DV iron and 2% DV sodium.

Now, as I mentioned previously, we look at these labels all the time, but I’m always interested in ways to improve food labeling.  The ONQI food rating system is one method that I’ve previously written about.  So, as you can imagine, I was interested to read about this new campaign.

Apparently, this new campaign will start out with print ads, notices on consumer packaging, and online tools, eventually leading to television ads later in the year.

So, what exactly is it all about?  This is what I read:

Health Canada is launching an education campaign to help consumers navigate “Nutrition Facts” labeling, advising them to remember this rule: 5 per cent is a little and 15 per cent is a lot.

Huh!  Well okay, that was just the introduction.  Let’s read a bit further.

They say with any nutrient, 5 per cent Daily Value or less is a little, and 15 per cent DV or more is a lot for any nutrient.

Okay, maybe I’m overestimating the intelligence of the of the Canadian public, but I’m sure most people already understand this.  Shouldn’t this be just basic elementary school math?

In the interest of fairness, let’s look a bit further.  From the Health Canada website,  the Nutrition Facts Education Campaign is a collaboration between Health Canada and the group called Food and Consumer Products of Canada.  According to Health Canada, research has shown that although many Canadian read the labels, more education is required so that the nutrition information is used to it’s full potential.  According to this research, 80% of Canadians have used the nutrition facts label to compare food products.  However, we are apparently not using the %DV to compare products, but rather other factors such as brand, price, nutrition claims, ingredient list and nutrient content are affecting our buying habits.

So, I have to say, I don’t understand the point of the program.  It sounds like we’re wasting money.  Maybe people aren’t using the nutrition labels as effectively as they could be, but it sounds like 80% of the population is at least looking at the labels.  If there are other factors such as price preventing us from using nutrition as our main focus when buying food, I don’t think this program is going to change anything.

If the goal of Health Canada is to improve the health of Canadians by influencing our eating habits, the money spent on this program (I actually cannot find how much is being spent) could be put to better uses.  Make the labels easier to read.  Put more focus on fresh foods (which by the way are not labelled at all).  Enforce and toughen regulations that limit the amounts of sugar, sodium, and other additives to our food.

It would be nice to see a future study look into the benefits of this program.  How has the health of Canadians improved as a result of 15% is more than 5%?

What do you think of the current nutrition labels?  Is this new program a good idea?  Please leave a comment.

Thanks.

Posted in Nutrition

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