Why knowing what’s in packaged food matters

Have your say as to what’s in our food

Many people believe that the easiest route to healthy eating is to simply avoid any food that’s packaged. But painting all processed food with the same brush can leave you shortchanged on many nutritious eats as there are a host of processed foods offering a wealth of nutrients.  Canned pulses, such as chick peas, canned fish, like salmon, plain yogurt, plain frozen vegetables and fruit and even organic peanut butter containing only peanuts, are all processed foods. But it’s key to separate those from what’s called ultra-processed foods.

In a recent study, published in the British Medical Journal, the authors defined ultra-processed foods as the following:

 industrial formulations which, besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, include substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations.

Slashing the intake of these products would lead to a huge reduction in the amount of added sugars, sodium, unhealthy fats and a long list of other undesirable substances including various additives.

But the reality is ultra-processed foods have become too large a part of our food landscape. According to a just study published in the journal Appetite, (but based on the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey) 48% of calories consumed by Canadians came from ultra-processed foods. Consumption of these  foods was high amongst all socioeconomic groups, and particularly in children and adolescents. Chances are when more recent data is available, the numbers will climb even further.

The diets of more than 33,000 individuals, aged 2 years and above, were analyzed and classified into various categories:   unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods and ultra-processed foods. In addition, the authors categorized consumption of the various foods according to groupings such as sex, age and incomes but also looked at the nutritional value of the different foods.

The ultra-processed foods were found to be grossly nutritionally inferior to non-ultra-processed foods.  The authors state,  “Lowering the dietary share of ultra-processed foods and raising consumption of hand-made meals from unprocessed or minimally processed foods would substantially improve the diet quality of Canadians.”

I know what you’re thinking right now – what my kids used to say which drove me crazy – duh. Of course we need to eat fewer of these foods.

Yes, we need to get back in the kitchen and prepare wholesome meals. There is simply no doubt about that.

But think about the study. It says that it’s primarily children and adolescents who are eating these foods. While parents have a say as to what their young children are eating, it’s not always the case with teenagers. But changing even youngsters’ palates takes time. We also need to teach kids how to cook, not just how to open packages and reheat food.

That’s why, in the meantime, we need to change the food landscape. Ridding the food supply of trans fats and slashing the sodium and added sugar counts but also making it simple to make healthier foods choices with easy to understand nutrition labels needs to be part of the process.

We need to speak up and have our voices heard. Health Canada has launched a number of consultations with the public to seek out opinions on current proposals.

•    Canada’s Food Guide
The time period to comment is almost up so get your comments in by December 8, 2016.

•    A ban on trans fats
Health Canada is finally proposing a ban on the use of partially hydrogenated oils (industrial trans fats) in foods. This consultation period is online until January 13, 2017.

•    Front-of-package labelling
Health Canada is proposing mandatory front-of-package labelling for foods high in nutrients that are a public health concern. These nutrients are:
–    Sugars
–    Sodium
–    saturated fat

The consultation period ends January 13, 2017.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Categories: Children's Health, Food Trends, Nutrition News

Author:Rosie Schwartz

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

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3 Comments on “Why knowing what’s in packaged food matters”

  1. laurenrenlund
    December 5, 2016 at 10:46 am #

    Thanks for that thoughtful post Rosie! I feel so sad when I see that stat about ultra processed food consumption, but it’s a clear indication things need to change in our food system. The more people who comment on the new proposals the better!

    • December 5, 2016 at 12:31 pm #

      Thanks for your feedback, Lauren! It is very much appreciated! Yes, we definitely need to make big changes. Can I ask ask you to please share my post so that we can get more people commenting?

      • Lauren Renlund RD
        December 5, 2016 at 3:34 pm #

        Will do 🙂

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