Health Minister consults with local moms on food labelling

Federal Minister of Health, the Honourable Rona Ambrose (left), speaking with parents Terri Pruden (centre) and Carol Cluett (right). Ambrose hosted a food labelling consultation with parents at the Morinville Christian School on Thursday afternoon. – Lucie Roy Photo

by Stephen Dafoe and Lucie Roy

Morinville – Better food labelling was the topic of two round table discussions held with Federal Minister of Health Rona Ambrose this week. After a consultation in Gibbons Wednesday, Minister Ambrose sat down with 10 local moms at Morinville Christian School Thursday afternoon to talk about the Harper Government’s desire to improve the information available to Canadian shoppers and to hear what local women had to say on the matter.

“I have launched a consultation on the nutrition facts table on the back of packaging because I don’t think the current label is giving people enough information about how to make a healthy choice,” the Health Minister said after the roundtable discussion. “What I am hearing from moms across the country, and I’ve heard it again here today in Morinville, is that our nutrition label is a little complicated and it doesn’t provide you with the obvious. We want to make it easier to understand. We want to make it easier when someone looks at that label to know what the healthy choice or what the unhealthy choice is. That then will make it easier for them to make a healthy choice for their family.”

Ambrose said the government initiative was prompted by rising and alarming rates of childhood diabetes, alarming rates of childhood obesity, and heart issues appearing in younger and younger Canadians. “We are really concerned about the food kids are eating from a Health Canada point of view,” she said. “This kind of diet and these kinds of dietary problems lead to chronic diseases. Chronic diseases are the number one problem in our healthcare system. This all leads back to not only healthy families but this is a huge burden on the healthcare system in Canada.”

The roundtable discussions are yielding similar findings among Canadian moms, most recently among those the minister has spoken with in Gibbons and Morinville. The current label does not make a lot of sense to the consumer trying to make healthy choices for their children and themselves. “There is information on there that Health Canada take for granted that they understand, and they [the public] don’t understand,” Ambrose said, adding the caveat that the moms she has spoken to are well researched on the topic. “They understand the diets, the dietary needs of their kids. They know what they are shopping for and what they want to buy, but that label is not giving them the information they are looking for.”

Ambrose said she has heard plenty of good ideas during her sessions with Canadian moms. Plainer language that Canadians can better quantify and a clearer message on just how much sugar is in a product are but two of the many ideas she has been offered. “We’re all worried about the amount of sugar we are consuming, particularly kids, and on the label right now there is no percentage daily value recommended for sugar,” the minister explained. “There’s also no added sugars. So you might have natural sugars but there are lots of hidden sugars. We don’t account for that on the label right now.”

Local moms offer input

Sugar and the variety of sugars was a concern to one participant in Thursday’s roundtable discussion. Jackie Zacharias said she believed it was difficult for consumers to perhaps understand the current labelling with the combined effects of products with sucrose, glucose and the other types of sugar that may be in a product, a combo that may be leading to our health issues. “They [the government] are looking at the bottom line of childhood diabetes and childhood obesity,” Zacharias said. “There needs to be better labelling in the areas of sugar because there’s natural sugars and artificial sugars. There’s added sugars, and what are the added sugars? There are all these things that can really make a difference when you know exactly what’s in a product as opposed to having to guess or be misinformed.”

The Cardiff mom said she was also concerned about genetically modified foods (GMOs) and would like to see companies labelling their product as to whether or not they are GMO free.

Minister Ambrose said it is a difficult thing to do at this time. “There is no evidence currently. There is no scientific evidence that genetically modified foods are unhealthy, and so we have to recognize that,” Ambrose said. “We have to educate people about that. But what the moms and dads are saying is ‘there may be no evidence but I still want to know if it’s GMO free or not.'” Ambrose went on to say the majority of Canadian foods, the fruits, vegetables and grains are genetically modified. “They are healthy and they still have healthy components in them, but what moms are saying, and I hear it a lot is ‘We’d still just like to know.'”

Beyond labelling products for GMOs and better information in general, Zacharias would like to see marketing food tackled to some degree, particularly misleading marketing. “I think the children of our country are being marketed to in ways that make them think that they are eating healthy and they are not,” she said, adding too much sugar is too much sugar; the problem being there is no clear way to know how much is too much in a product. “This whole marketing ploy of ‘everyone’s drinking it, it must be great’ has to change. Kids go out and drink energy drinks and they’re having problems. They think having one or two after a basketball game is OK because of the electrolytes in the sports drink, whereas if they went and drank coconut water they’d get way better electrolytes. But they don’t know that and they are being marketed to.”

Like Zacharias, nurse and mom Carol Cluett believes if it was all just put out on the plate, consumers could and would make healthier food choices. “It would be so much easier all the way around,” she said, adding she shared with the minister that the percentages of daily intake currently on food labels mean nothing to consumers. “If we can really just make it simple and tell them [consumers] exactly the facts, and stop lying to people.”

Cluett would like to see parents taking an active role in their children’s health. “Parents should be a lot more cognoscente of their children and what they are eating; take more care whether they are sneaking things at home or away from home,” she said, adding it is important to know if their children are merely sneaking junk food or if there is a disease contributing to the problems. “Diabetes is the number one killer of children now. It is coming up in younger and younger children.”

Both Zacharias and Cluett were pleased with the results of the roundtable and appreciative of the opportunity to provide input.

“I thought it was an incredible opportunity because I think someone like Rona [Ambrose] can make a huge difference, and I think it is great that she’s doing this because she’s going to the people and saying ‘What do you want? What don’t you like? What isn’t working?” Zacharias said.

Cluett agrees. “It’s tremendously informative,” she said of her visit with the minister and other mothers. “I’m so glad to see something like this happen because there’s just too much deception and there’s too much misinformation given, and then nobody knows where they’re at.”

The consultation series provides an opportunity for the Government to get a better understanding of how Canadian parents use food labels to make nutritious decisions about the foods they buy and prepare for family meals and is representative of a commitment made in the government’s 2013 Speech from the Throne. The 10 participants were given a form with five questions: What part of the food label do you find the least helpful and why, what part is the most helpful, what is clear and easy to understand, what is difficult to understand, what improvements can you suggest to the nutritional information on the food label and what else would help to make healthier food choices for your family and what nutritional information do you look for on the label.

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