Nutrition labelling nears

Canada will soon be adopting American-style 'nutrition facts' labels on all prepackaged foods....

Canada will soon be adopting American-style ‘nutrition facts’ labels on all prepackaged foods.

According to the proposal, nutrition labels will be mandatory on all foods by 2003 with some obvious exceptions: fresh fruits and vegetables, self-serve bulk foods, foods that are packaged and prepared at retail, and foods – such as coffee – that have insignificant levels of the 13 key nutrients: fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, fibre, sugar, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron.

There are good and compelling reasons for this proposal. Canadians do not eat as healthily as they should. The cost related to poor eating habits is estimated to be over $6.3 billion per year. At the same time, there is growing consumer interest in nutrition and widespread demand for better information about the foods we eat. Everyone, it seems, knows something about cholesterol, trans fatty acids, beta

carotene, anti-oxidants and the scientific basis for a daily glass or two of wine.

But armed with this knowledge, it is extraordinarily difficult to construct a healthy diet unless you hire a biochemist or restrict yourself to pure unprocessed foods. Neither alternative is appealing. What Canadians need is what Americans have had since 1993: prominent standardized labels that allow us to compare, for example, the sodium and saturated fat content of Skippy peanut butter and the (less tasty, but more healthful) all-natural brand.

The new label will be a boxed-in chart with the heading ‘Nutrition Facts’ in Franklin Gothic Heavy or Helvetica Black. Everything about the layout, fonts and type size will be standardized to ensure that consumers can read, understand and compare nutritional labels.

The serving size and calories will be prominently disclosed, followed by core information on the 13 key nutrients listed above. For each nutrient, the quantity per serving and the percentage of the recommended daily intake will be set out.

Manufacturers can elect to include information on several other nutrients including starch, soluble fibre, insoluble fibre, polyunsaturated fat, mono-unsaturated fat and 21 additional vitamins and minerals. And all of this will be in English and in French.

This will make for valuable reading. No question. And the proposed label is surprisingly easy to read. But imagine the supermarket bottlenecks caused by consumers intent on a detailed comparison of two labels. And I, for one, have another quibble. The simple pleasure of grabbing a handful of nuts or a sliver of cake and pretending they simply don’t ‘count’ in your daily calorie tally will be nullified. Mandatory nutrition labels will leave little room to hide: a Crispy Crunch Lite chocolate bar has 280 calories – who knew?

Health Canada is also proposing to allow, at last, some limited health claims for food. The following four claims are on the table: (1) a diet low in saturated and trans fat reduces the risk of heart disease; (2) a healthy diet with adequate calcium reduces the risk of osteoporosis; (3) a diet rich in fruit and vegetables reduces the risk of some types of cancer; and (4) moderation in sodium intake reduces the risk of high blood pressure. None of these claims is revolutionary. But governments are cautious and it is clearly a good thing that manufacturers will finally be able to tie the consumption of certain foods to specific and important health benefits.

The nutrition labelling proposal contemplates a two-year phase-in period after regulations are enacted in the next few months. Apart from the obvious exemptions listed above, small businesses will also be exempt when compliance with the new requirements would be burdensome. In addition, the labelling proposal accommodates smaller packages and awkward shapes: several different formats of the nutrition facts chart will be allowed.

And, for those of us still tempted to indulge, there’s a glimmer of hope. The document explicitly exempts ice cream parlours and cookie stands from nutrition labelling requirements. Thank God.

Susan Vogt practises marketing law at the Toronto offices of Gowling, Lafleur & Henderson. She can be reached by phone at (416) 862-5439 or by e-mail at susan.vogt@gowlings.com.