Unless you’re living off the grid, growing wheat, milling your own flour, catching fish and tending to a bountiful garden replete with homegrown produce, you’re probably buying food in a package from time to time.
Mass food production and modern food processing methods have been a boon for humankind in many ways. Our food supply is safer, more accessible and more affordable than ever. In North America, most of us have the luxury of choosing the food we want to eat based on, well…whatever is important to us.
Health, affordability, ethics, religion, taste, geography, culture, and many other factors may play a role in what we choose to eat.
Can I just say?…What a time to be alive!
But you know as well as I do, it’s not really that simple.
Some labels and claims are required by law, some are used as marketing tactics, others are claims from third parties or health authorities hoping to add legitimacy to a product.
None of this makes it easier on us consumers to just get. what. we. want.
This post is the first in a series, where I’ll explore these food labels, claims and labelling regulations. I’ll share some of the ones I love, along with the ones I love to hate.
So. Much. Info.
I know what it’s like to have two boxes of crackers in hand, brow furrowed, my brain in high speed processing mode, trying to digest all of the information on those packages. “High in fibre!”, “Organic!”, “May contain soy!”, “Product of Argentina!”, “150g per serving!”, “Made with Natural ingredients!”, “Certified vegan!”, “8% iron!”. Overwhelming is a serious understatement.
The sheer volume of labels we’re exposed to on a daily basis make it seem like the wild west. But, when it comes to food labels and claims, it’s not completely lawless. In fact, all of the claims and statements above are indeed regulated.
There are two government agencies which create and enforce labelling guidelines in an effort to keep food labels clear and truthful, and to help consumers make informed choices.
- Health Canada creates regulations around health-related claims such as:
- Allergen labelling (ex. Contains nuts)
- Nutrient claims (ex. Good source of fibre)
- Nutrition Facts tables
- Safety-related expiry dates
2. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) creates and regulates non-health related labels such as:
- Quality standards (ex. best before dates – not the same as an expiry date!)
- Label claims and statement (ex. All Natural, Organic)
- Product origin and manufacturing claims (ex. product of Canada)
The CFIA also enforces all of the Health Canada regulations, and they accept complaints or comments from the public about the safety, quality or (mis)labelling of food.
The thing is, labelling regulation and enforcement is tricky…with a capital ‘T’. There are hundreds of thousands of labelled food products available in Canada, and it’s the responsibility of the food industry to adhere to regulations before their products hit the shelves. The food industry, like all other industries, is interested in remaining profitable. With more and more food products hitting the shelves for consumers, it becomes crucial to maintain a competitive edge. One way to do this is by taking advantage of prime advertising space…the package it comes in.
The industry spends a lot of time and money doing market research around consumer food trends, and despite all of the (well intentioned) regulations around food labelling, the ingenuity of food marketers seems to find a way to dodge those regulations just enough to impact consumer choice, while still remaining ‘legal’.
Now let’s kick this series off with one of my long time faves…NATURAL
Truthfully, I do think most of us have caught on that this label claim can be easily misused. In fact, I often hear or read how there is ‘zero regulation’ around the term natural. In Canada, unlike the US, that isn’t entirely true.
For a food product to be represented as ‘Natural’, it must not:
- contain an added vitamin, mineral, nutrient, artificial flavouring agent or food additive.
- have any constituent removed, except the removal of water.
- have been submitted to processes that have significantly altered their original physical, chemical or biological state (these processes are described in a short list as ‘maximum processes’)
Within these standards however, the claims ‘natural ingredients’ or ‘made with natural flavour/ colour’ can still be appear on food made with multiple ingredients, as long as the ingredient(s) in question falls under these rules.
This means, it falls on the consumer to know that ‘made with natural ingredients’ isn’t the same thing as ‘all natural’.
Tricky. See what I mean?
A popular (and deceptive) example of how food manufacturers use ‘natural’ in food products is in processed deli meat. There are now an array of ‘natural’ options that display catchy claims such as ‘no nitrites added’, ‘no synthetic preservatives’ or ‘no artificial ingredients’.
In many cases, instead of adding synthetic nitrites, which are important for flavour and colour, and in the prevention of bacteria growth, manufacturers add cultured celery extract. This ‘natural’ additive contains naturally occurring nitrates and bacteria, which when combined create…TADA…nitrites (with the same chemical composition as the synthetic ones).
These ‘natural’ deli meats offer no advantage in terms of safety or nutrition. They do offer to separate you from your hard earned cash, though.
Despite the language loopholes and the deceptive food marketing, the big fat problem that I have with the term ‘natural’ has more to do with the fact that it carries a health halo. This refers to the act of overestimating the healthfulness of a product based on a single claim (‘gluten free’ is still having a shining moment here, too). Naturally flavoured popsicles are still sugar water, ‘natural’ deli meat is still a highly processed food, and ‘made with natural ingredients’ tells us precisely zero about the nutrient content of foods.
In addition to that, there’s no doubt we’re living in a world where ‘natural’ is seen not only as the healthier alternative, but often the ‘safer’ one too. I’ll cover this in more detail in a later post about organic food, but for now it’s important to point out that earthquakes, tuberculosis, and botulism are entirely natural.
- Food labels and package claims are regulated in Canada
- The food industry has developed creative and deceptive ways to use labelling guidelines to influence consumer food choices, while remaining lawful.
- The claim ‘natural’ is regulated in Canada, but loopholes in language and creative marketing have worked in tricking consumers, rather than informing them.
In the coming months, I’ll be digging deep on number of label and package claims. Tell me, what would you love to know more about?
Thanks goes in large part to Brescia University nutrition graduate and RD-to-be, Laura Thibodeau who helped me with both the research and writing of this post. You can find Laura on Instagram @lauras_lunch3