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Sep. 19, 2003. 06:47 PM

ANDREW STAWICKI /TORONTO STAR

New nutrition labels that replace the old, can help consumers make more informed choices and improve eating habits.

Fine print on food items is changing
Consumers can compare brands accurately
Standard portion sizes on new labels are finally realistic

ROBIN HARVEY
FEATURE WRITER

A new tool for healthy eating and weight control is slowly but surely making its way to Canadian grocery store shelves.

The new "Nutrition Facts" labels mandated by Health Canada in January and being phased in over the next three to five years are starting to show up on a small number of food products.

For the first time, food manufacturers will be able to put specific health claims on their packages.

Government experts think the health claims can spur $5 billion in savings in direct and indirect costs of cancer, diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke over the next 20 years.

"The industry was very interested in health claims," says Health Canada spokesperson Margaret Cheney. "It (is a) health promotion issue. Used well, I think these can have a positive effect."

Cheney says it is not easy to qualify for the health claims. The claims will be allowed on products that suit diets to combat and prevent heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, osteoporosis and some types of cancer.

But experts hope food manufacturers will be encouraged to develop more and more healthy food formulas to qualify. This could raise the nutritional standards of packaged food in general, Cheney says.

For example, Kellogg's frosted Mini-Wheats will display two health claims, both related to heart disease. Kellogg's can use the claims because the cereal is low in sodium and free of saturated and trans fat.

Other information on the labels will help consumers improve their nutrition, Cheney says. For example, consumers concerned about their salt intake will be able to compare just how much of the daily recommended amount of sodium two products have and make their choices accordingly, she says.

The labels carry information on 13 key nutrients calories, fat (including a subgroup of saturated and trans fat), cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, fibre, sugars, protein, calcium and iron and vitamins A and C. And for the first time worldwide, the new Canadian labels address the amount of unhealthy artery-logging trans fat in pre-packaged food.

"Nutrition is all about variety and balance," says Susan Roberts, spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada. "With the new labels, consumers are armed with the information to choose the foods to best fit their family's and an individual's needs to put them on the road to good and healthful eating."

Now that the labels have been established, the next task is to educate consumers about how to use them, she says. Consumers have been suffering from information overload when trying to use labels in the past, she says. The new system is consistent and straightforward and more people will read labels as a result, she says.

Two of the nutrients carbohydrate and fat, including the aggregate total of saturated and trans fat are expressed as a percentage of what would be consumed in an average day by someone who requires 2,000 calories per day. The amounts of cholesterol, sodium, fibre and protein are just listed per serving size.

The daily values for vitamins A and C, calcium and iron are based on Canadian food guidelines and are expressed as a percentage of the highest recommended intake for any population group, excluding pregnant and nursing women. This is on par with what an active, growing, teenage male would need.

Cheney says the 13 nutrients were selected after review by medical, nutrition and science experts and reflect the nutrients believed to have the greatest impact on health for most Canadians. The new regulations also define labelling terms like "light" "fat free" and "reduced in sodium" among others so that when the claims are used on a product they will be applied consistently for the first time.

The new labels replace a voluntary system that was a "confusing mishmash," Roberts says. "The old labels are all over the place, no consistency."

Bill Jeffrey of the watchdog group, The Centre for Science in the Public Interest, says some of the old labels were for all intents and purposes deceptive.

Some manufacturers would tailor serving sizes on labels to make their food look healthier containing less fat or salt or more vitamins than would normally be consumed in a single serving, he said. Some were very selective about what they included on labels and would only include positive information about the product, downplaying the potential drawbacks.

He says the new system is a significant improvement over the old system. "It is now a standardized system," he says. "The old system confused people. They (food manufacturers) can't play fast and loose with the rules anymore."

It is important to note the serving sizes listed on the new labels were calculated to reflect the amount an average person consumes in an average meal. This is not the same as the serving sizes recommended in the Canada Food Guide. The guide servings are designed to promote a varied diet. However, the serving size mentioned on the label is consistent from product to product. Some sample serving sizes: one hard taco shell is 30 grams, a serving of ice cream is 125 ml or half a cup, a serving of french fries is 85 grams.

Some foods are excluded from the new rules. They include fresh fruit and vegetables, raw meat and poultry (except when ground) and raw fish and seafood, foods and beverages of negligible nutritional value (coffee, alcoholic beverages), foods packaged and sold on site and individual food servings intended for immediate consumption (sandwiches in vending machines, for example).

An informal survey of five major grocery chain stores and one independent grocery mart found the new labels in scant supply. Still, as the labels become widespread, Canadian consumers will be able to compare the nutritional content of pre-packaged foods using standardized, consistent labels.

Small businesses have five years to include the new labels; larger businesses have three.

Previously, nutrition labelling was optional with a few exceptions. Not all nutrient content claims were regulated, and the criteria for some of the existing claims did not reflect the latest science, Health Canada says.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency will enforce regulations governing the new labels.

rharvey@thestar.ca

Additional articles by Robin Harvey


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