Can you build a better food label? The Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) thinks so.
After spending several years evaluating Canada's now standardized food labels, the nutrition and health advocacy group, which also publish Nutrition Action Healthletter, the world's largest circulation health newsletter, believes its proposed revisions will make the current food labels more effective and easier for consumers to understand.
Since becoming mandatory in 2007, Canada's labelling laws require certain pieces of information to be included on all commercially prepared food. Specifically, all foods must list the serving size, calories per serving and the quantity of 13 "core nutrients," ranging from carbohydrates to trans fats to vitamin C.
Most nutrients are listed by weight (usually in grams), and also by something known as the per cent daily value, which is the amount of a particular nutrient found in the food, compared with what a healthy person should be consuming in a typical day.
While few dispute the benefits of finally having a standardized label that can be applied to all foods from applesauce to Chef Boyardee (fresh fruits and vegetables are exempt from labelling laws), questions have arisen as the labels have been put into full use. One issue of particular concern relates to the sodium content: the current labels use a target of 2,400 mg for the per cent daily value (so a food with 240 mg of sodium would have a daily value of 10 per cent).
The problem? That represents the upper limit for sodium, not the amount a healthy person should be aiming for in a day (for most people, the level should be about 1,500 mg per day). So in a country where sodium intake is already sky-high, there is concern the food label, as it currently exists, might be skewing recognition of the problem.
"Changing the per cent daily value for sodium from 2,400 to 1,500 mg is very important. In fact, excess sodium may be the biggest public health issue related to food right now," says Bill Jeffrey, national co-ordinator for the CSPI, and one of the authors of the new proposed label, which is featured in the December issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter.
Another area of confusion under the current labelling system relates to sugar content. The current labels don't differentiate between added and naturally occurring sugars, which can give some fruit and milk-based products a bad name.
"It's not that sugar in fruit is OK, it's that fruit is good," Jeffrey notes. "Under the current label, someone looking at frozen blueberries might be discouraged from buying them."
Jeffrey and co-author Michael Jacobson, executive director of the CSPI, also propose that the percentage of key ingredients - such as whole grains, fruits and sugars - be included in the ingredient list, giving consumers a better idea of whether a specific product contains a lot or a little of a particular ingredient (labels currently list ingredients in order, by weight, but without any indication of percentage of total content in the food). This would bring Canada into line with other industrialized nations that already make percentage ingredient lists mandatory.
While Jeffrey is aware Health Canada might be reluctant to alter the current label after investing years of effort into its development and implementation, he feels some of the issues are simply too pressing to ignore.
"Over the years, Health Canada and the (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) have been reluctant to make changes because these are relatively new guidelines, but I think they're starting to recognize that some things just won't go away, like the sodium issue."
For more information on Nutrition Action Healthletter, visit
Jennifer Sygo is a dietitian in private practice at Cleveland Clinic Canada (clevelandclinic.ca). National Post