Consumers are more concerned than ever about the ingredients in their food. Growing public awareness of the health impacts of excessive fats and sugars has created pressure for food manufacturers to make their products healthier. Many have made voluntary commitments to clearer labels and healthier ingredients.

A recent U of T study led by PhD student Laura Vergeer of the L’Abbé lab found that voluntary commitments to better nutritional standards made by food manufacturers are falling short. 

For this new study, published in the journal Current Developments in Nutrition, Vergeer and her team surveyed 22 top manufacturers of food and beverages, most of which had made voluntary commitments to reduce energy content or portion sizes, sodium, saturated fat, trans fat, or sugars. 

“We found that most companies —  17 of the 22 that we looked at —  did report at least one recent action or commitment concerning one or more of these nutrients that we looked at,” said Vergeer in an interview with The Varsity. “However, when we actually scored them using our Food Company Reformulation tool, or FCR tool as we call it, we found that generally they didn’t perform very well on average.”

The FCR tool scored the strength of the companies’ commitments by looking at various indicators, such as the level of transparency and the magnitude of reduction the companies achieved. 

Unhealthy grocery shelves hurt Canadians

Vergeer said her team also looked at whether companies’ actions applied to all relevant products or just a subset of what they produced, and if they followed certain recommendations made by the World Health Organization or the Canadian government. “So, for example, do companies commit to meeting Health Canada’s voluntary sodium reduction targets?” Vergeer posed.

“[Our data] really seems to suggest that the potential for these voluntary commitments to actually make meaningful improvements to the nutritional quality of foods and beverages in Canada is pretty low, based on what they are now,” Vergeer said. “We’re really hoping for some stronger efforts in the food industry and maybe some more government intervention.”

Obesity and hypertension among Canadians have drastically increased in recent decades. Both contribute to heart disease, which is Canada’s second leading cause of death.

Diet has been linked to these diseases time and time again. “Most products in the packaged [Canadian] food supply are considered highly processed,” said Vergeer, adding that they are often high in sodium, saturated fats, and sugars. “And they’re also heavily marketed particularly to children, which is a major concern in Canada as well.”

The amount of salty foods Canadians eat, which contributes to high blood pressure, is especially startling. A recent report showed that packaged foods in Canada contain the most sodium out of the 12 countries included in that report. 

Canadian companies come in last

Vergeer noted that Canadian companies do a poor job of creating healthy food options. “But it’s important to keep in mind that there’s quite a bit of difference between companies in terms of how they’re performing.”

Multinational companies such as Nestle, which did the best overall at an FCR score of 122 out of 155, typically fared better than domestic Canadian companies.

The five companies that did not report any voluntary recent actions or commitments to bettering their nutritional standards were Lassonde, Agropur, George Weston — the parent company of Loblaws and Canada’s largest food retailer —  Parmalat, and Sobeys. “Most of those actually are companies that only operate in Canada or are Canadian-headquartered companies,” Vergeer said. 

Why are Canadian companies falling behind? Vergeer explained that, in comparison, multinational companies have greater financial resources. “They’re able to hire people like dieticians or nutritional scientists that can really focus on areas like the formulation of their products.”

Policy is required for a healthier Canada

Vergeer and her team’s study reveals that many companies cannot be relied on to voluntarily put healthier products on the shelves. This is where policy needs to step in.

“When the Liberal government was elected in 2015, they developed this healthy eating strategy [that] was aimed at making the healthier choice the easier choice for Canadians,” said Vergeer. 

This was when the Child Health Protection Act was proposed to restrict the advertising of unhealthy foods to children. Other proposals included a mandatory front-of-pack label that would easily alert consumers to products high in sodium, sugars, and saturated fats. 

As of 2020, the Child Health Protection Act has not been passed.

“One thing that food companies can do in situations like that is support these government initiatives that support healthy food policies as opposed to, say, lobbying against them, which can delay their implementation,” said Vergeer. “And we suspect that’s probably what’s happened here with these Canadian food policies.”

What can the average customer do in the meantime? Vergeer suggested reading nutrition fact tables and ingredients lists, but noted that this can be difficult for consumers with lower levels of health literacy. 

“That’s why we pushed for these policies from the food industry or from governments,” Vergeer said. “[They] really help make it easier to make healthy food choices. “So that the onus isn’t on the consumer to do that all on their own with little guidance.”