Last month, the Government of Canada launched a series of public consultations regarding proposed changes to the federal nutrition labelling requirements. Some notable proposed changes include revisions to the format and declared nutrients in the nutrition facts table (NFT), greater emphasis on the presence of sugar, new serving size guidelines, and updates to the percentage daily values for various nutrients to reflect the most recent dietary recommendation. Some of these changes are aligned with similar proposals made by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States (US FDA).

BRIEF BACKGROUND

In its 2013 speech from the throne, the Government of Canada made a commitment to consult with Canadian parents to improve the way nutritional information is presented on food labels. As part of this commitment and a broader Food Labelling Modernization Initiative, Health Canada is undertaking a review of the nutrition labelling requirements under Food and Drug Regulations (FDR).

The first phase of consultations took place from January 2014 to April 2014 and involved gathering feedback from Canadian parents and consumers on how the presentation of nutritional information on food labels can be improved. On June 10, 2014, Health Canada released a report titled Consulting Canadians to Modernize and Improve Food Labels: What We Heard, summarizing the results of the feedback. Based on this feedback, a technical review of current labels, and the latest scientific information, Health Canada prepared a series of changes to the nutrition information on food labels.

On July 14, 2014, Canada’s Minister of Health Rona Ambrose announced the launch of the second phase of consultations regarding these proposed changes. As part of these consultations, Health Canada also released five technical consultation documents that outline the rationale behind the proposed changes for the broader stakeholder community. This second phase of consultations will involve face-to-face and online consultations to gather information and feedback from Canadians.

KEY PROPOSALS

The goal of the proposed changes is to update the format and placement of nutritional information on product packaging to make labels easier to read and to reflect new scientific information. Some of the key changes are highlighted below.

Changes to the Nutrition Facts Table

Many of the changes to the NFT are aimed at making food labels easier to read and emphasizing certain elements to help consumers quickly locate the information. The proposed changes include:

  • Moving the placement and increasing the prominence of the calories declaration
  • Revising the order of nutrients in the NFT, so the nutrients Canadians want less of (e.g., fat, sodium) will be listed in the upper part of the table whereas nutrients Canadians may want more of (e.g., fibre, proteins) will be listed in the lower part of the table
  • Requiring the declaration of potassium and vitamin D in the NFT, since these are nutrients some Canadians are not getting enough of. Vitamins A and C would no longer be required in the NFT, although manufacturers could declare these nutrients voluntarily.
  • Removing the requirement to declare percentage daily values for certain nutrients, such as carbohydrate and fibre.
  • Adding the statement “5% DV or less is a little, 15% DV or more is a lot” to the bottom of the table to help consumers interpret the percent daily value levels listed
  • Adding a declaration of the amounts by weight of vitamins and minerals

Highlighting the Sugar Content

Due to the growing concern and interest surrounding the sugar content in food products – which is a source of class action litigation, particularly in the United States – Health Canada is proposing three different approaches to help consumers better understand the sugar content on food labels. These approaches are not mutually exclusive.

The first approach will require all sugar-based ingredients (e.g., honey, glucose-fructose, fancy molasses) to be grouped together in the list of ingredients in parentheses after the common name “sugars.” Currently, all sugar-based ingredients added to a food are listed separately in the list of ingredients. Since ingredients are listed in descending order of proportion by weight, under the proposal all sugar ingredients will be considered together in determining their total relative contribution to the food, which may result in sugar ingredients being more prominent in the ingredients list. Health Canada believes this approach will give consumers a better idea of how much added sugar is in a food in comparison to other ingredients.

The second approach will require a declaration of the amount of “added sugars” in grams as a separate line in the NFT – under “sugars,” which would be renamed “total sugars” – to help consumers identify which foods have added sugar. “Added sugars” will be defined as sugars and syrups that are added to foods during processing or preparation. This approach would follow a similar proposal being put forward by the US FDA. Health Canada recognizes that this approach may support the misperception that added sugars are nutritionally different from naturally occurring sugars, and may create enforcement challenges since there is no analytical method to distinguish added sugars from naturally occurring sugars.

Finally, Health Canada proposes to establish a percentage daily value of 100 grams for “total sugars” and to require a percentage daily value declaration for total sugars in the NFT. Health Canada hopes that this approach will help consumers determine when a food is high in sugar and support an overall reduction in sugar intake for many Canadians.

Other Proposed Changes to Nutrition Labelling

Similar to the NFT, Health Canada proposes to standardize the format of the list of ingredients to ensure consistency and to make the list of ingredients easier to locate on food labels. In addition, Health Canada is proposing to add an optional box below the NFT that would provide information on certain bioactive components in foods, such as a quantitative declaration of total caffeine content per stated serving size.

Health Canada is also proposing new serving size guidelines to ensure that serving sizes declared on similar foods are more consistent. The proposed changes include recommendations for manufacturers to more closely align serving sizes with the regulated reference amounts and what Canadians typically eat in one sitting. There are also numerous proposed changes to the reference amounts set out in the FDR, to support the proposed new serving size guidelines.

Finally, Health Canada is proposing to update the daily values for various nutrients to reflect the most recent dietary recommendations. The proposal would also set different daily values for infants (six to 12 months old), toddlers (one to three years old), and the adult population (four years old and older). Currently, daily values are provided for two age groups: children under two years of age and persons two years of age or older.

FOOD LABELLING MODERNIZATION INITIATIVE

Members of the public will have until September 11, 2014 to participate in the online consumer consultation. Industry stakeholders will have until September 12, 2014 to make submissions regarding Health Canada’s five technical consultation documents. The results of these consultations will be used by Health Canada to make decisions about nutrition labelling.

These proposed changes are just one of several initiatives that Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) are undertaking in the food regulatory realm. In the coming years, Health Canada and the CFIA will continue to engage with consumers and industry groups as part of the Food Labelling Modernization and various other regulatory initiatives, including efforts to support the Safe Food for Canadians Act. For more information on this Act, please see our August 2013 Blakes Bulletin: Changes to Food Safety Legislation in Canada