With its emphasis on plant proteins versus meat proteins, Canada’s new Food Guide is causing consternation among agricultural leaders as they wonder how it will impact animal agriculture.
“There has been a fair bit of concern expressed to me on the impact the new food guide will have on the livelihood of farmers and the way they do business,” said John Nater, MP for Perth-Wellington.
The focus on plant protein gives the impression that meat-based protein should be avoided, he suggests.
Where once meats and dairy had their own food groups, they have now been incorporated into the protein section. This section is visualized as one triad on a plate, which also contains pulses, nuts and seeds.
It’s radically different from the 2007 version yet some beef and dairy leaders say this is a good food guide ... it just needs some modifications.
They feel there has been an overemphasis on protein from plants and an underutilization of protein from animals. Also, the focus on low-fat is worrisome when healthy fats have been scientifically proven to be beneficial in the diet.
Perhaps, say leaders, consumers should be reminded that choice is as essential as eating healthy.
“I have no issue with people eating plant-based food but we need to share with consumers that it doesn’t have to be one or the other,” says Randy Pettapiece, MPP for Perth-Wellington. He has been travelling through rural Ontario hosting round tables on agriculture. The new food guide has come up as a topic of conversation at every one.
Dairy and beef farmers have been most vocal, he said.
“This is not a bad food guide,” says Henry Wydeven, a dairy farmer from St. Marys who represents dairy farmers in Huron and Perth on the Board of Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO). “Dairy took a hit, it’s true, but we are still in the protein section and that’s where we belong.”
Where he is confused is the focus on low-fat. “We are past that,” says Henry. “In fact, Health Canada did a study in 2015 called Evidence and Review on Dietary Guidelines that recognized dairy fat is good for you and won’t make you obese. These are their own words and yet the food guide doesn’t follow what they said ... we are baffled by that.”
Also, the food guide doesn’t promote the other benefits of milk besides its protein content.
“The scientific evidence supporting the nutritional benefits of milk products in the promotion of bone health and prevention of chronic diseases, for instance, is stronger than ever and new evidence continues to accumulate,” stated Isabelle Neiderer, Director of Nutrition and Research at Dairy Farmers of Canada. Like Henry, she is advocating choice and education.
“We encourage Canadians to continue considering that milk products are a key source of six of the right nutrients that most Canadians already fall short of: calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin D and potassium.”
The dairy response to the new food guide was immediate but Henry says DFO is very supportive of the healthy eating approach encouraged in the document.
“It recommends home-grown, home-cooked foods with lots of vegetables and that’s how I think most dairy farmers eat,” says Henry.
Keeping those concepts and “modernizing” the guide with an acceptance of the role healthy fats play in a diet will make this a better food guide, he suggests.
Beef Farmers of Ontario (BFO) agrees.
“We were happy to see beef included on the new visual plate model and that beef is still recommended for Canadians,” says LeeAnne Wuermli, the manager of communications and marketing for BFO.
“One of our concerns is the shift in focus to plant-based foods. We think it is important to point out that not all proteins are created equal,” says LeeAnne. “Lean beef has more nutrients with a low calorie content whereas with other protein sources, you have to eat more volume which equals more calories.”
Looking forward, LeeAnne says beef farmers see the food guide as a reason to continue their focus on community engagement.
“Beef, typically, is part of a balanced meal...it is enjoyed by family and friends for its great taste and is part of a great meal while aligning with the strengths of the new food guide,” says LeeAnne.
Going forward, she says it is very important for farmers and agriculture leaders to make sure the conversation remains positive about beef and beef as part of a healthy diet.
To do that, BFO hopes to have more opportunities to speak to school children and consumer groups, teaching them how to include beef in their diet.
Certainly, remaining positive in the face of change is the way to move forward for farmers reacting to the increased emphasis on plants and decreased focus on animal proteins in the new food guide, says Crystal Mackay, the president of The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI).
“Based on my expertise and our CCFI public trust research, it is important for the industry not to be defensive in public forums but rather, promote their choices as part of a balanced diet,” says Crystal. “It’s best to use credible third party voices whenever possible,” she added. “Our resource www.bestfoodfacts.org is meant for this. When one profits from selling a product, and fights for its nutritional virtues, the credibility factor is extremely low to negative and it’s not effective.”
From the plant perspective, the new food guide has been met with approval. The Plant-Based Foods of Canada (PBFC) group is comprised of companies that make and market plant-based products. In a statement released in late January, Beena Goldenberg, CEO of Hain Celestial Canada (a member of PBFC) stated: “The changes we are seeing in the updated Canada Food Guide reflect a broader societal trend towards greater consumption of plant-based foods that promises to continue for years to come. Public health research shows that the key to better eating is not just educating people about what they should eat but also ensuring that great tasting plant-based foods are widely available, convenient and affordable.”
In rebuttal, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and Canadian Pork Council say that when Health Canada grouped animal protein and plant proteins in the same category, they didn’t take into account that the two are not equivalent.
“It is important to note that plant and animal proteins are not equivalent. Each has a unique nutrient package,” said Mary Ann Binnie, manager of nutrition and industry relations with the Canadian Pork Council. “Pork contains all the amino acids you need along with many B vitamins, iron, zinc and other essential nutrients needed to grow and repair our bodies.”
Both the contents and the style of the food guide were given a total revision from the 2007 version. This visual revamp and departure from the concept of food groups is “confusing” to his constitutents says John Nater.
Yet other food groups and health organizations commented on the simplicity of the new guide, especially the plate concept.
Understanding how much a “serving” was in the old food guide is now replaced by half a plate of vegetables, a third plate of proteins and a third of whole grain foods.
Health Canada says it designed the plate based on three guiding principles.
Guiding Principle 1: A variety of nutritious foods and beverages are the foundation for healthy eating. Health Canada recommends: regular intake of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and protein-rich foods.
Guiding Principle 2: Processed or prepared foods and beverages high in sodium, sugars or saturated fat undermine healthy eating Health Canada recommends: limited intake of processed or prepared foods high in sodium, sugars or saturated fat avoiding processed or prepared beverages high in sugars.
Guiding Principle 3: Knowledge and skills are needed to navigate the complex food environment and support healthy eating. Health Canada recommends: selecting nutritious foods when shopping or eating out, planning and preparing healthy meals and snacks, sharing meals with family and friends whenever possible.
The avoidance of processed foods and encouragement to eat homegrown foods with family is something most agriculture groups do agree on.
“The food guide doesn’t just talk about what to eat but how to eat,” says LeeAnn, who sees that as a real positive aspect of the guide.
For instance, the guide boldly states to “be mindful of your eating habits.” This means being aware of how you eat, why you eat, what you eat, when you eat and where you eat. Being mindful can help consumers make healthier choices more often and make positive changes to routine eating behaviours. Also, mindful eating creates “an awareness around your everyday eating decisions.”
This is key reported Kate Comeau, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada in the Globe and Mail newspaper.
Choosing to cook at home is a mindful approach that has two benefits: it teaches kids cooking habits that can help their own mindfulness about food. Also, home cooked meals are usually healthier.
“Generally, when we’re cooking at home, we know that food tends to be more nourishing, lower than processed and prepared foods that are high in sodium, saturated fat and in sugars that tend to have negative effects on our health,” Comeau added.
Still, enough concern has been raised that John Nater says he drafted a letter to both the Minister of Health and the Minister of Agriculture to let them know his constituents are confused and feel meat proteins are underrepresented in the new food guide.
“There needs to be consistent pressure made on the current government to the high value of our local farmers and producers,” says Nater. “We have the best food producers in the world and we need to promote that great stuff comes from rural Canada.” ◊