Nutrition misinformation: brought to you by Health Canada

ee-nutritionfactsboxIf you’re looking for smart food choices, do not read the  Percentage Daily Value (% DV) on food labels. It’s a recipe for confusion.

The % DV is supposed to tell you how much of a certain nutrient you need in a day. The problem is that the figures Health Canada is using bear no resemblance, in too many cases, to the actual amounts you should be consuming.

That’s because the data they’re using is 30 years old.

Yet Canada actually has nutrient recommendations that are relatively recent and take into account all of the recent scientific research showing just how much of various nutrients we should be consuming.

I came across the issue when I was trying to find out how much vitamin D was in a particular product. The label simply said that it contained 50 % DV. I wanted to check whether this meant that a serving had either 300 or 400 IU of the nutrient. The daily recommendation is 600 IU for anyone from ages one to 69  years and 800 IU for those over 70. I assumed it was 400 IU as the % DV is supposed to cover the highest requirement.

Imagine my shock when I finally discovered that the % DV was set at 200 IU.

My sleuthing resulted in my writing an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, “Take food labels with a grain of salt”.   In it, I not only describe the absurdity of having such outdated information on food packages, I also talk about a seven million dollar educational campaign to teach Canadians about using the % DV.

So let’s say you look at a milk container, you’ll see that one cup provides 45 % of your Daily Value of vitamin D. Have two cups and you’re also most there.

But that’s not the case or even close to it.  You would need, at least, four more glasses to meet your quota if the milk was your only significant source.

The out-of-date folate DV is another real concern.  If you’re a woman in your childbearing years and  because of what you believe to be the  % DV for folate, you might mistakenly think you’re  getting more than 100 % on a daily basis. You may then not be as quick to take a folic acid supplement in case you get pregnant (folic acid and folate are linked to protection against having babies with neural tube defects such as spina bifida).  If you relied on the % DV, you might only be taking in 220 micrograms when the current recommendation is 400 micrograms.

The figure of 400 was established a mere 15 years ago in 1998.

Seems pretty irresponsible. Others might say this kind of information poses a health risk.

In my sleuthing,  I tried to find out where the 2400 milligram figure for % DV for sodium came from. It’s a whopping figure when you consider that the current recommendation is only 1500 milligrams. Well, apparently back in the 1980s, we didn’t have a recommendation for sodium as the overwhelming research linking to high sodium intake to high blood pressure, stroke and heart and kidney disease was just beginning to emerge. So Health Canada took a U.S. figure at the time to use  for the then voluntary nutrition labels.

But back in 2005, the same year that mandatory nutrition labelling on packaged food came into place,  Canada did indeed have recommendations – ones that were significantly lower than the outdated ones from the 1980s.

For those of you who regularly read my posts, you know that I am a vocal supporter of the Bill C-460, The Sodium Reduction Strategy for Canada Act. So on February 1, 2013, when it  was debated in Parliament for the  first time, I was keen to listen in on the action.  As I watched on CPAC (Cable Public Affairs Channel),  I was stunned to hear Mr. Colin Carrie , Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health, suggest that Canadians can look at the Nutrition Facts Box on packaged foods and the  % DV will help guide them to healthy choices.

Where did he get his misinformation from? Maybe  our Minister of Health, the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, who does not support the bill, is getting her info from the same source.

Clearly Health Canada’s campaign to tell Canadians about the % DV is working – just maybe not the way health professionals would like to see.


Do you read the % DV on nutrition labels and use them to make your food choices? What do you think about Health Canada’s actions? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Read more about Health Canada’s lack of communication.

ead more about Health Canada’s lack of

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Categories: Rosie's Rants

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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2 Comments on “Nutrition misinformation: brought to you by Health Canada”

  1. Pptitan26
    February 26, 2013 at 1:13 am #

    It should also be noted that there seems to be no standard caloric intake on which many of these percentages are based. Not to mention the deceptive variations in “serving size” that are used to make the product seem to be less crappy. Some simply report the caloric content wrong, despite the fat and carbohydrate numbers they list.

    • February 26, 2013 at 8:10 am #

      Thanks for your comments. The serving size issue is one that I always find irritating. The different serving sizes of the same foods makes the comparisons between products so much more time consuming. As well, many people don’t notice the serving sizes differences when they are comparing products. A standardized serving size for various food categories should definitely be required!

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