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Ronda Payne

Canada’s Food Guide, established by Health Canada, is undergoing changes—for the first time in a decade—but the process thus far has many thinking dairy will be eliminated as a category. When the potential was revealed in the guiding principles and recommendations for the revision to the food guide, Dairy Farmers of Canada went into action to challenge the possible changes with the website Keep Canadians Healthy.

It’s a move that surprised Dr. Hasan Hutchinson, director general for the Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion (ONPP) with Health Canada.

“We have not made a decision as to what sort of grouping might be there,” he says of the group categories within the guide. “It’s not clear to me that we would go back with the traditional groups that we had before, but we have not decided that yet.”

In fact, Hutchinson notes, groupings may not even be how the food guide is based in this revised version. Some countries, like Brazil, don’t use food groupings, but rather focus on four food categories based on the level of processing and food-based dietary guidelines.

Within the revision process information found on the Health Canada website, the What We Heard Report (2016) states:

“A greater emphasis on (or de-emphasis of) certain foods was recommended by participating professionals as a way to improve the usefulness of the food groupings. For example, some contributors suggested this could include:

  • a greater emphasis on vegetables, rather than fruits; or
  • a de-emphasis of meat or milk.”

Yet industry professionals, such as nutritionists from the dairy industry, have been included in the process only as contributors to the consultation process in the same way as the public and it’s hard to confirm where the impetus to de-emphasize meat and dairy is coming from.

BC Dairy Association director of nutrition education, Sydney Massey, is concerned that the new food guide may not be doing enough to prevent chronic diseases like osteoporosis. According to Massey, 1.5 million, or 10 per cent of Canadians, have the condition.

“It’s clearly a very concerning level,” she said. “So you’d think they would pay attention to foods that contribute to bone health.”

shutterstock_342000047On the Keep Canadian’s Healthy website, it notes that Health Canada’s own data shows:

  • The majority of Canadians have low intakes of not only vegetables and fruit but also of milk and dairy.
  • Canadians across all age groups are not getting enough of eight key nutrients: calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin D, potassium and fibre;
  • Six of these eight are provided by milk products.
  • Milk products offer several other health benefits including reduced risk of colorectal cancer, heart disease, stroke, hypertension and type 2 diabetes.

“It’s a shift towards more plant-based foods,” Hutchinson says. “We were talking about protein and we gave as examples, eggs, fish, poultry, lean meats, as well as lower fat milk products. We have not said not to have animal-based foods.”

Hutchinson’s comments are mirrored in the guiding principles (found on the website, Food Guide Consultation). Those, like Massey, who participated in the online consultation process would have seen the following statement from that document: “What is needed is a shift towards a high proportion of plant-based foods, without necessarily excluding animal foods altogether.”

Massey and others in the dairy industry are concerned this doesn’t place enough emphasis on the importance of dairy foods in Canadians’ diets.

“It’s the easiest way for the vast majority of Canadians to get the calcium they need,” she says of dairy products in the diet.

And it isn’t just about calcium either. Other sources note that while a number of other protein-rich foods provide calcium, milk products also include 15 other essential nutrients. While no one in the dairy industry is debating the need for more plant-based foods in Canadians’ diets, the concern is the downplaying of the need for dairy.

“They put out some guiding principles and asked the public to respond to it,” Massey notes. “The evidence showed there should be a greater emphasis [on dairy].”

The expanded principles document notes: “Animal foods such as eggs, fish and other seafood, poultry, lean red meats such as game meats, lower fat milk and yogurt, as well as cheeses lower in sodium and fat are nutritious ‘everyday’ foods.”

The reference to lower fat is part of the concern due to the higher fat content in certain foods which dairy professionals, like Massey, describe as healthy.

Hutchinson doesn’t feel the guiding principles are all that different from what has been suggested by Massey’s counterparts in the nutrition community.

“It has more to do with the saturated fats and what you replace those saturated fats with,” he says. “Other types of evidence had to do with sugars, sodium. There are convincing arguments to increase amounts of fruits and vegetables and grains. That’s what we’ll be doing with our very comprehensive modelling going forward. We’ll come up with healthy patterns of eating, and then evaluate these patterns to ensure they are getting enough of the nutrients they need and not as much of what they shouldn’t be having.”

He explains that the evidence review conducted more than a year ago pointed to three components: nutrients and food and health; consumption patterns of Canadians; and, use of the food guide. Those results were published last year.

He adds that the current format of the food guide, in its written form, is not as functional as it could be. “We’re going to pull apart those functions and be producing a suite of functions. A policy document focused for health professionals and policy makers, and materials that are developed specifically for Canadians—your everyday Canadians.”

While Massey was involved in the first and second rounds of the public consultations (the first having close to 20,000 responses, the second—a more detailed response—approximately 6,700), she is uncertain of how those consultations contribute to the whole of the guide’s revisions. It’s a far cry from the one-on-one sessions with industry conducted 10 years ago or the committee that Massey was part of at that time.

“Ten years ago, they had a food guide advisory committee and I was a member of that committee,” she explains. “They won’t have any industry meeting as part of the development process.”

This is confirmed in the statement from Hutchinson’s office: “During the policy development of the new Canada’s Food Guide, officials from my office will not be meeting with representatives from the food and beverage industry to discuss policy development.”

In his interview with Modern Agriculture, Hutchinson adds this has been done to, “Ensure that the development of the dietary guide is free from conflict of interest as well as the perception of conflict of interest.”

He states the information from the second round of consultations, which concluded in August, 2017, is being reviewed for the re-write of the guide.

“We have taken all of that in hand and we are doing a re-write for what we’d put out for consultation,” he says. The report from the second round of consultation will be available in early 2018.

The consultation will be conducted by what Hutchinson describes as academic experts such as those from the Canadian Institute of Health Research. The feedback from the consultation will lead to new Canada’s Food Guide materials in 2018. He adds that input from the second consultation and experts, along with focus testing with the public, will be considered in finalizing healthy eating recommendations to be developed into consumer messages, tools and resources.

Statements provided by Hutchinson’s office add that ONPP has a staff of experts in public health nutrition, nutrition science and public health policy to lead the revision of the food guide. External experts such as governmental partners, health stakeholders, nutrition researchers and scientists will also be included, but not nutrition experts who work in industry like Massey.

“During the open public consultations there’s been ample opportunity for everyone to put their input in,” he says of the desire for the dairy industry to get involved. “And you’ll see that in the second What We Heard Report.”

Canada’s Food Guide has included a dairy category since its introduction in 1942. Those interested in the process can receive updates by registering through the link at the bottom of the food guide revision web page. Once the new version is released, reviews of nutrition-related evidence are expected every five years.

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