Thursday, January 20, 2011

What is Healthy Food? Provinces Call On Ottawa to Clarify

Good question, right? It's probably not something you overtly ask yourself from day to day, but you most certainly do have an opinion on what healthy food means to you. The trouble is, your definition may not be the same as someone else's definition which is probably not the same as the opinions of the people who manufacture the foods you eat. So now, while our definitions of health are being shifted and remodeled, nearly all of the provinces are making a plea to Ottawa to clarify what qualifies as 'healthy food'. Good luck, Ottawa!

According to a report from Health Canada, Canadian consumers are regularly being tricked into buying unhealthy foods that are marketed as being healthy, because there are no clear rules in place to prevent this from happening. For example, according to one of the authors of this report, "while a reduced salt snack is better than a fully salted snack . . . it may still remain a salty product and may be not be the healthiest snack choice,". So, just as we have standardized health and nutrient content claims, all of the provinces except Quebec are lobbying for a standardized definition of what a "healthy" food is, so it can be slapped on the front of the packages of foods that qualify.

This quest for a 'standardized' definition of a "healthy food" is likely going to be quite the challenge, as it will obviously have to stem from the word 'health', which in itself has a whack of definitions. The Advisory Group for the Canadian Medical Association puts it best, saying that "Health is a state of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. It is characterized in part by an absence of illness (a subjective experience) and disease (a pathological abnormality) that enables one to pursue major life goals and to function in personal, social and work contexts." While it's a mouthful, it really hits all the main points and highlights the fact that health is not as straight forward as simply 'the absence of disease'.

Does this mean that potato chips can be 'healthy' if they promote mental and emotional well being by making you happy and not making you sick? The lines suddenly become blurred when you really start picking things apart. Nonetheless, the report goes on to say that "The overarching theme from government and non-profit stakeholders is that Health Canada needs to show leadership and develop a standardized definition of healthy foods.". I personally think this is great for consumers in order to keep them better informed, but I'm not certain it's going to impact the choices they make as much as the government might think (or hope). I guess it's just a waiting game now until we find out. What do you think?

You can read the report commissioned in 2009 here if you are interested.