Health Canada considers permitting vitamin and mineral (iron, calcium etc.) additives in high-calorie food products of all sorts, such as potato chips, energy bars, fruit flavored drinks. However dieticians and other health professionals caution that those products continue to be fortified junk food and that the little added nutritional value will boost consumption and enhance problems of obesity and diabetes.
The belief behind the proposal of discretionary fortification for manufacturers is that people will at least get nutrients when they eat junk food.
Health minister Leona Aglukark pulled out the amendments to the Food and Drugs Regulations for additional assessment before the planned publication in the Canada Gazette on March 31.
A Health Canada official comments: “She balked at the prospect of being labeled the Fortified Junk Food Queen.”
There is ongoing debate and a “serious split” within the department about the virtues of enriching junk food, according to another official. Some people worry that it would encourage junk food consumption, while others argue that it would stimulate the processed food industry and offer a health benefit for consumers.
The officials remark that it also all depends on how the processed food industry will pressure government departments and the cabinet to adopt the regulatory change.
Within the nutrition community, there is certainly little support for discretionary fortification.
Lynda Corby, a registered dietician and public affairs director of Dieticians of Canada, says the association is in favor of food fortification as long as there is a “clear public health need.” However, it does not believe in allowing authority to the industry.
“There is a potential – if high-fat, high-energy foods are fortified with vitamins (or) minerals at the discretion of the industry – for Canadians to choose these foods in place of healthier whole food options, which may add to the obesity problem in Canada. We feel that children and youth are particularly vulnerable to this practice.”
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff is the medical director and co-owner of the Bariatric Medical Institute, a weight management centre in Ottawa, Ontario. He points out that the foundation of Health Canada´s proposal for discretionary fortification is not convincing.
“I’m not aware of a rash of micro or macro-nutrient deficiencies in the population that need rapid correction,” Freedhoff comments. “I can appreciate that if there were some sort of massive public health crisis of vitamin deficiencies, giving the food industry the ability to fortify foods would be a useful plan of action but given that we’re all fine, this is really misguided and panders to the food industry.”
“The food industry’s job is to sell food and not to protect health. To allow them to discretionarily fortify food is worrisome,” Freedhoff goes on to say that this would surely result in the fortification of types of foods not recommended by nutritionists.
“Yet, with the fortification, the food industry will have ample ammunition with which to advertise how helpful their food has now become. And we know that front-of-package health claims do, in fact, influence consumer behavior. … Therefore, it might steer people to choose less healthy options. It might influence people to consume more of a less healthy option. And the worst case scenario is that it influences people who are already eating healthy foods to choose, highly-process, less healthy options.”
However, Christelle Legault , Health Canada spokesperson states in an email that “some stakeholders have repeatedly expressed concerns that the existing Regulations are overly restrictive. These stakeholders have indicated their concern that case-by-case amendment of the Regulations is a lengthy process that inhibits the development of new products and limits access by Canadian consumers to foods with added vitamins and mineral nutrients, including products that are readily available in other countries.”
Although some vitamins and minerals can produce adverse effects if consumed in excessive quantities, information sustained in Health Canada documents points out the department does not judge the change would represent a health risk.
The Department states:”Discretionary fortification, the optional addition of any nutrient from a defined list of vitamins and minerals over defined ranges at the discretion of manufacturers, is expanded to allow for a wider range of fortified products which would provide for more food sources of nutrients without increased risk to health,”( hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/nutrition/vitamin/faqs-eng.php).
Health Canada explains that research and testing with focus groups suggests that fortification would not boost consumption of junk food. “Those who already consume ice cream or carbonated beverages indicated that they might choose the fortified counterpart if there was no difference in any other aspect of the food including taste and price, but they did not indicate they would consume more.” With these changes in the food industry, the Canadian policy would synchronize to that of the U.S which allows such products as Goldfish crackers fortified with calcium.
There is claim that the change would benefit trade. Food and Consumer Products of Canada, a major industry group in favor of the policy change, declined to comment on the proposals prior to Health Canada´s public announcement.
Spokesperson Catherine Baker explained that “when the regulations come out we’d be more than happy to talk about them.”
Eric Beauchesne, Ottawa, Ont. and Wayne Kondro, CMAJ
Written By Stephanie Brunner (B.A.)