As dairy foods companies are updating their labels to comply with new nutrition labeling requirements in the United States, Canada has announced a similar revision of nutrition labeling on products sold in that country. In addition to these upcoming changes to its nutrition facts panel, Canada is also considering mandatory front-of-panel symbols that would warn consumers about high levels of sugars, sodium or saturated fat.
Health Canada released final regulations on December 14, 2016, that would update the nutrition information presented on all foods and beverages sold in the country. These changes included adding and deleting nutrient declarations, making serving sizes consistent, updating Daily Values and also adding a requirement that sugar ingredients be grouped together in the ingredient list. Companies have five years to comply with the new labeling regulations.
Following publication of the changes to nutrition labeling, Health Canada released a consultation document regarding mandatory front-of-pack symbols, with these required labeling changes due at the same time as the nutrition labeling updates. Canadian officials proposed that products (other than meal products) containing more than 15 percent of the Daily Value for sugars, sodium or saturated fat carry a symbol on the package’s front panel. This corresponds to 345 milligrams of sodium, 3 grams of saturated fat and 15 grams of total sugars per reference amount, or per 50 grams if the product’s reference amount is 50 grams or less. Exemptions from the saturated fat limit would be provided for certain dairy products.
The consultation document proposed four options for a front-of-pack symbol, including octagons, triangles and exclamation points. Since the octagons resemble stop signs and the triangles yield signs, the symbols could be interpreted as warning symbols, rather than educational information.
Partly skimmed milk (plain and flavored) and some cheeses will not be required to display front-of- pack symbols based on their saturated fat content. While some of these products will be exempted from the saturated fat levels, they would still need to meet the sugars and sodium limits, or else display the front- of-pack symbol. Flavored milk, yogurt, cheese and frozen desserts would require a mandatory symbol.
The stated goal of mandatory front-of-pack labeling is to provide information to consumers about nutrients of public health concern and to support Canada’s Healthy Eating Strategy. However, the icon only focuses on three nutrients to limit. There is no consideration for beneficial nutrients, or the overall nutrient package of a product. It also focuses on the nutrient package of a single food or beverage, without regard for how that product fits into a meal or an overall diet. This approach would place the same cautionary icon on flavored low-fat milk as it would on other beverages that do not provide the same essential nutrients.
While labeling is an important source of nutrition and health information, it should reflect the full nutrient profile of a product so that consumers can make informed decisions.
So far, IDFA has heard that Canadian dairy foods companies have had little success in having their concerns heard by government officials. Because the United States and Canada are fairly aligned on nutrition and labeling issues, it will be interesting to see how this approach could affect the future of dairy products in the United States. IDFA will continue to monitor the issue for members.