Why we need better food labels

Proposed front-of-package nutrition labels would help you avoid unhealthy choices
A woman looks at products on a shelf in the grocery store

The federal government is proposing a new food labelling system that could show you at a glance whether a product contains unhealthy levels of sodium, sugars and/or saturated fat. Heart & Stroke dietitian Carol Dombrow explains how this could change your trip to the grocery store.

What is front-of-package labelling?

Front-of-package (FOP) nutrition labelling is meant to help you know more about the foods and beverages you choose at the grocery store. Packaged foods would be required to show simplified nutrition information on the front of the box, bag or can, where you can easily see it and compare with other products. 

How does labelling work now in Canada?

Currently, many foods and beverages feature prominent labels showing what are called nutrient content claims — touting benefits such as “high in calcium” — or health claims such as, “A healthy diet low in saturated and trans fat may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

However, a product that qualifies for this kind of claim may also be high in nutrients such as sugar or salt, which can increase your risk of chronic disease. The manufacturer can choose to display only the positive claims.

What changes is the government proposing?

Health Canada is proposing mandatory front-of-pack labelling for any packaged foods high in nutrients that are a public health concern, specifically:

  • sugars
  • sodium
  • saturated fat

A food that contributes 15% or more of the daily value of any of these would have to show a label on the front. Fresh foods such as vegetables, fruit, meat and fish, as well as some milk products, would not be labelled.  

Why the focus on sugar, salt and saturated fats?

Eating foods high in these nutrients on a regular basis can lead to increased health risks such as obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Canadian diets are dominated by these ultra-processed foods, like soft drinks, cookies and chicken nuggets, which add excess sodium, sugars and saturated fat to our diets. Canada’s Food Guide recommends limiting these foods and drinks because they are not part of a healthy eating pattern, yet, one-third of Canadians (35%) had increased their consumption of junk food or sweets just three months into the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Why is Heart & Stroke advocating for change?

Heart & Stroke supports this initiative for several reasons:

  • It can help consumers select healthier foods and will really help people who have difficulty with the  nutrition facts table found on the back of food packages. This could include seniors, people with low literacy, people with poor eyesight and recent immigrants who speak languages other than English. 
  • It can potentially reduce chronic disease, including heart disease and stroke.
  • It will encourage manufacturers to develop healthier products and reformulate existing foods, resulting in a healthier food supply.
  • People want to see this change! A recent poll found that 8 in 10 Canadians (81%) support the federal government requiring the packaged-food industry to include mandatory front-of-package alert labels on packaged foods indicating whether they are high in sugar, salt and/or saturated fat.

Heart & Stroke would like to see a single standardized, mandatory front-of-package labelling system that is prominently displayed on the package and does not compete with other nutrient messaging.

The label should be easy to understand, consistently located and supported by a strong education program to help consumers get to know the new system.  

The ultimate goal is to encourage Canadians to purchase more vegetables and fruit, whole grain foods and protein foods, and prepare them at home.