In a win for food industry, Canada food labels won’t list ‘added sugar’

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There are 152 ways to say “sugar” on a food label. It can be called isomaltulose, agave, barley malt, sorghum or brown rice syrup, even potato syrup solids.

All of those obscure synonyms will be listed in one convenient place on the food label, behind the word “sugar,” as Health Minister Jane Philpott announced Wednesday.

But you will still never know how much of that sugar was deliberately added by the food processing industry and how much is just there naturally.

And in the first round of the great Canadian food label fight, that is a victory for the food industry.

Consumers, health professionals, even the provincial and territorial governments, had wanted labelling of added sugars.

It’s all there in the document Regulations Amending the Food and Drug Regulations published in the Canada Gazette on Wednesday.

“The proposal to declare the amount of added sugars in the Nutrition Facts table was popular among consumers and health stakeholders (including health professionals, NGOs and provincial and territorial governments)” it says.

Consumer confusion

But industry doubted the science. Food company lobbyists argued that the human body doesn’t know the difference between added and natural sugars.

As well, “added sugars” is confusing, the industry argued, directing Health Canada experts to a U.S. study that suggested “consumers have a limited understanding of the ‘added sugars’ declaration in the Nutrition Facts table.”

A study that was funded, in part, by the food industry.

groceries-w-iStock

The food industry says that there is no difference in how our bodies react to naturally occurring or added sugar in foods, and there is no need for separately labelling ‘added sugar.’ Health Canada has accepted the argument. (iStock)

Requiring industry to reveal how much sugar it adds to products was one of the original proposals when the previous Conservative government began the label change consultations in 2013.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared to want the same thing. In his mandate letter to the new health minister, listed among the top priorities was “improving food labels to give more information on added sugars.”

Instead, Philpott kept the Harper government’s wording, which had dropped “added sugar” from the labels when it published the first draft of the changes in June 2015.

‘Opportunity to educate’

There was hope that the new government would rescue the “added sugar” description. In a recent commentary in the CMAJ, University of Toronto’s nutrition sciences professor Mary L’Abbé called on the new health minister to restore the “added sugars” wording so consumers will know how much unnecessary sugar they are eating.

The disclosure could also encourage industry to lower sugar levels in processed food, she said. If added sugars can’t be tracked, it means a loss of data.

“For health researchers, we can’t do those types of studies to see what are the effects of consuming high amounts of added sugars,” L’Abbé said in a related CMAJ podcast.

“They’re missing a huge opportunity to educate consumers but also to allow consumers to make informed decisions.”

Canada out of step

By leaving “added sugars” off the label, Canada is out of step with the U.S., the U.K., and the World Health Organization, where “added sugars” or “free sugars” have been set at a limit at 10 per cent of daily calories or about 50 grams a day (12 teaspoons of sugar). That sugar allowance is almost used up by a single can of soda pop.

Nutrition

For Canadians, the cost of waiting five years for the new labels is estimated to be more than $1 billion in lost improvements to their health. (CBC)

Instead, Canada has decided to talk about “total” sugars on the new labels, which includes both added and naturally occurring sugar.

That means the Canadian label on a can of soda pop will state that it contains about 35 per cent of the total recommended daily sugar intake. The consumer might think, “That’s less than half, so not too bad, right?”

Wrong. For anyone who finds it confusing, there will be a helpful reminder in fine print on the bottom of the label that reads, “Five per cent is a little and 15 per cent is a lot.”

The label change has the deliberate objective of getting Canadians to eat less sugar. It says so in the document.

Yet paradoxically, Health Canada has set the daily recommended total daily sugar intake at the exact level we already consume.

20% solution

In 2004, research showed that Canadians were eating about 20 per cent of their daily calories in sugar. And after years of consultation, the new labels will suggest we eat no more than 20 per cent of our daily calories in sugar (about 100 grams or 24 teaspoons of sugar.)

The thinking appears to be that because almost half of Canadians, especially those under 19, consume a lot more than 20 per cent of their calories in sugar, it will be an improvement for them if they read the label and change their habits.

But for everyone else, it’s sugar as usual. Or will be, when the new labels are finally in place by the year 2021.

No urgency

And that raises another curious aspect to the label changes. The point is to encourage healthier food choices, but there is apparently no urgency.

Industry has five years to bring in the new labels, so it can gradually incorporate the changes into the normal product business cycle, use up their old labels and save money.

Health Canada estimates the changes will cost industry between $500 million and $800 million.

For Canadians, the cost of waiting five years for the new labels is estimated to be more than $1 billion in lost improvements in their health.

(This is the formula: Health Canada estimates that changing food labels will prompt Canadians to make healthier food choices. Using a conservative estimate, ministry officials calculate those health improvements will lead to an almost $2 billion saving to the economy over 10 years in reduced heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and other illness — that’s about $275 million each year in health savings. Delaying that by five years? About $1.4 billion in health improvements that didn’t happen.)

Commas stay

And finally, in this first round of the great Canadian food label fight, industry won another small victory. Health Canada wanted the ingredients to be marked by bullet points to make the labels easier to read. But industry complained that it would cost too much and take up too much space on the label. They wanted to keep the commas they’re already using.

So by 2021, when the new labels are finally in place, two things won’t change. There there will be no “added” sugars on the nutrition facts table. And the commas stay.

The second round is already underway over proposed front-of-package labels for sugar, fat and salt. Public consultations close on Jan. 13, 2017.

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In a win for food industry, Canada food labels won’t list ‘added sugar’

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