Trudeau government moves to rein in pushers of salt, sugar and fat

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In May 2013, NDP MP Libby Davies introduced a private member's bill that sought to regulate and limit the amount of sodium manufacturers add to processed and packaged foods.

Research has proven that sodium -- which we mostly consume as sodium chloride, or, in other words, salt -- contributes to cardiovascular disease.

Most of the sodium we ingest does not come from the salt we choose to sprinkle on our eggs and onions. It comes from prepared foods such as canned soup, crackers, breakfast cereal and processed cheese. In Canada, manufacturers add more salt than they do in most other countries, including the U.S.

Davies' bill did not pass. Although her Liberal colleagues supported it, the majority Conservatives voted it down.

Conservative MPs argued that the NDPer's regulatory approach was heavy handed and would be costly to consumers.

That's why it seemed ironic when, almost a month ago, staunch Harper Conservative and former champion skier, Senator Nancy Greene Raine, introduced a measure that would use the heavy hand of government regulation to protect children from a food industry that seems hell-bent on making them fat and unhealthy.

From Nancy Greene Raine to Health Minister Jane Philpott

Greene Raine proposed a ban on advertising of snacks and soft drinks that targets kids. Her bill would change the Food and Drug Act's labelling rules to make it "illegal to label, package or advertise any food or beverage in a manner that is directed primarily at children."

Greene Raine once did television commercials promoting über-sugary Mars bars, but that was a long time ago. She has a right to change her views.

This Monday, the Trudeau government picked up Greene's idea, which is based on longstanding Quebec legislation. The ban on advertising junk to kids is part of a broader, Liberal government healthy foods initiative.

The new measures announced by Health Minister Jane Philpott include revising the Canada Food Guide so that it conforms to the latest science.

The new Guide will address the fact that Canadians are not eating enough vegetables, fruit, whole grains and milk; that 30 per cent of the calories Canadians consume comes from food high in fat, sugar and sodium; and that important nutrients such as calcium and fibre are "under-consumed."

The government will also move to require that the food industry provide simple and clear front-of-package nutrition labelling.

The goal of this measure would be to equip consumers with "access to simplified, nutrition information to help them make healthier food choices when they are limited by time, motivation or relatively low health literacy."

The government cites two specific sorts of labeling that are now used elsewhere.

One lists key so-called "nutrients" such as sodium and sugar, and highlights whether the amounts are high or low.

The other scores food products on how healthy they are "by using a combination of nutritional information and dietary guidance."

Big challenges in getting food industry to care about health

None of this will happen immediately.

The government has merely launched consultations and we will not see legislation until, at the earliest, 2018.

And there is nothing radical on the government's current list of measures.

Minister Philpott does not even go so far as to pick up Libby Davies' proposal that the government should actually regulate the amount of sodium in commercially prepared food products.

It is one thing to warn consumers that products contain high amounts of unhealthy substances such as salt. It is another to oblige manufacturers to produce safer foods, by establishing limits on substances such as sodium, sugar and fat.

Whatever the government ultimately decides to legislate, changing diets and eating habits -- and the practices of a multi-billion-dollar industry -- will not be easy.

Just to get a sense of the magnitude of the challenge, try watching television advertising for a day and take note of the food products and services that are advertised.

You will see endless promotions for candy bars (very often using, as tobacco pushers used to, prominent Hollywood stars such as Joe Pesci and Danny DeVito); aggressive fast-food chain ads (that sometimes try to get folks in the door by promoting their salads and other notionally healthy offerings); and ads for such chemical-additive rich and sodium-heavy (and, essentially, useless) processed foods as bottled salad dressings.

On that latter product, this writer did a bit of investigation on supermarket shelves, a few years ago. He found that all the dressings offered, from do-gooder Paul Newman's to corporate behemoth Kraft's, were, without putting too fine a point on it, frightful concoctions.

They all had chemical and other ingredients that no reasonable person should want to sprinkle on lettuce.

Here is a short list: potassium sorbate, polysorbate 60, phosphoric acid (which Kraft obligingly explains "enhances tartness"), silicone dioxide (to "prevent separation", as though consumers are unable to shake the bottle), as well as good old sugar (refined and white) and cornstarch.

Processed salad dressings are a particularly pernicious example of food industry mendacity, because they are so closely associated with the foods that are touted by experts as vital and necessary: fresh vegetables.

Another way of measuring the challenge the government faces in inculcating healthy eating practices would be to walk into your local big box store or large chain supermarket.

There is a Real Canadian Superstore (owned and operated by Loblaw's) in this writer's neighbourhood. If you were to walk into it, you would quickly notice two unavoidable facts.

First, you'll note that the store has a series of street-level entrances (which city authorities required in exchange for allowing Loblaw's to build a highly-contested big box store in an established, urban neighbourhood).

If you try to use one of these doors you'll discover that they are all locked; you are forced to enter via the parking lot in the back.

Then, the second thing you'll notice is that before you get to anything resembling healthy food, you have to run a junk-food gauntlet.

You have no choice but to walk past seemingly endless crates of soft drinks, chips, candy bars, sugary breakfast cereals and other blights on gustatory good sense.

This seems to be standard food retailer practice.

Push high-profit-margin, massively-promoted junk on people, as aggressively as you can. Shoppers are impulsive, retailers reason. They know that if they stick useless and often downright unhealthy stuff directly in their customers' line of sight, many of those customers will buy that stuff, even if that was not their original intention. 

In the face of an industry with that sort of ethos, what can a revised Canada Food Guide or clearer nutrition labels accomplish?

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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Images: Flickr/Brittany Randolph

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