How will the industry address the new Food Guide?

The meat and dairy sectors face challenges as Health Canada recommends more plant-based proteins.

By Kat Shermack

Today, Canada’s Food Guide received a long overdue makeover. The new guide was three years in the making and is the first update since 2007. Health Canada’s changes offer a simplified approach to eating, replacing the traditional four food groups with three, and encourage plant-based sources of protein while de-emphasizing meat and dairy.

Prior to its release, Health Canada stated that the revised Food Guide would place increased focus on nutritional science. The government agency refused to meet with representatives from the food and beverage industries, causing meat and dairy associations to respond with education-based social campaigns. Their efforts were aimed at combating the negative perceptions that have arisen among health and eco-conscious consumers who believe in the benefits of plant-based proteins.

The food guide dates back to July 1942, when it was called the Official Food Rules. Released during World War II, it emphasized getting sufficient nutrition during a period of food rationing. The earliest food guide was a simple list of what Canadians should eat in a day. Back then, it recommended milk, fruits, vegetables, cereals and breads, fish, meat and eggs.

In 1961, “rules” was dropped for the friendlier “guide,” and in 1977, Health Canada reduced the number of food groups to four. The year 1992 saw the release of the iconic rainbow that most still remember from school.

But does the food guide really affect Canadians’ eating choices? Health Canada’s own research says that Canadians consult the internet, family and friends and television shows for advice on healthy eating before they turn to the Food Guide. Plus, there’s the influence that broader food trends play on consumer habits. From the low-fat craze, to the Mediterranean diet, to the cruelest food trend of them all: low carb. The previous food guide already emphasized the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, but it was YouTube and Instagram that made has plant-based eating trendy.

Nikole Goncalves was a digital marketer for RBC in Toronto until two years ago, when she quit her nine-to-five job to become a full-time YouTuber. She has almost half a million subscribers through her channel Health Nut Nutrition, which focuses on eating plant based and whole foods. She believes plant-based eating is here to stay.

“People are more educated and informed about how food affects our body and the environment,” Goncalves says.

Today, the movement has led a range of companies to espouse, directly or indirectly, the benefits of plant-based eating. This includes A&W (with its fly-off-the-shelves Beyond Meat veggie burger), veterinarian-friendly meal brand Yves Veggie Cuisine (with its new ‘flexitarian’ strategy), and even meat companies like Maple Leaf-owned Greenfield (which has pledged to “go meatless” on Mondays).

And then there’s France-based Danone, which became part of the Plant-Based Foods of Canada lobbying organization in September. More recently, the company announced plans to triple the size of its plant-based business by 2025 through investments in startups like coconut water brand Harmless Harvest (its portfolio already includes the dairy-free Silk and Alpro brands).

In addition to embracing these trends head on, the meat and dairy industries have also been turning to social to fight back against widespread perceptions that their industries have a negative impact on the environment and people’s health.

Earlier this month, the Ottawa-based Dairy Farmers of Canada released a statement emphasizing the importance of protein from dairy, and claims the new Food Guide could harm the dairy industry. In a statement, a spokesperson today reiterated the importance of dairy products, saying, “While the food guide has changed, milk products continue to play a valuable role in helping Canadians make healthy-eating decisions on a daily basis.”

Meanwhile, the dairy association has been using social media to share information about the environmental impact of dairy. Infographics and news articles combat the perception that dairy is bad for the earth, such as a post about how the Canadian dairy sector has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world: approximately one third of the global average.

Joyce Parslow, executive director of marketing and consumer relations at Calgary- and Toronto-based Canada Beef says eating more plants doesn’t have to mean cutting out meat. In anticipation of Health Canada’s update to the Food Guide, Parslow’s team did their own research into the eating habits of Canadians.

“We asked Stats Canada for a snapshot of red meat consumption,” Parslow says. “We learned Canadians eat a modest amount of red meat, maybe not even enough. We aren’t eating red meat with reckless abandon.”

“We need to stay current with trends,” Parslow continues. “I understand if people don’t want to eat meat because they don’t want to eat an animal. But if it’s because of health reasons, I don’t think it’s warranted, and that’s the message we’re trying to get out there.”

Canada Beef has been countering anti-meat messaging through a social media campaign on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The association also launched the “Think Beef”campaign to challenge perceptions of beef, with a website that contains recipes, articles, and information about beef, as well as how to incorporate it into a healthy diet. And it’s using the hashtag #beefbelongs as a rally cry for meat lovers across Canada.

“Red meat seems to be a lightning rod,” Parslow says. “People think it’s bad for the planet and bad for their health. We’ve addressed that online. We’re rolling out infographics and call-outs on beef’s actual impact on health and the environment.”

Tim Lambert, CEO of Egg Farmers of Canada is also relying on social media to convince Canadian consumers to eat more eggs, through more educational posts and healthy egg recipes packed with veggies. A key message for Canadian egg farmers is that eating more fruits and vegetables doesn’t mean you have to cut out eggs.

“We want to emphasize that while we understand Canadians generally need to incorporate more fruits, vegetables and legumes into their meals, eggs are a valuable source of high-quality protein as well,” Lambert says.