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Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, right, and nutritionist Jessica Cole look over samples of some of the food groups at the unveiling of Canada’s new Food Guide, January 22, 2019 in Montréal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Canada’s new food guide: A fail on culture and sustainability

Health Canada has finally revised their national Canada Food Guide after a three year consultation process and three years of revisions. While there have been some positive elements to the update, oversights on cultural and social barriers to food will likely continue to make its dietary recommendations unachievable for many Canadians.

As a biocultural anthropologist, I explore how nutritional health goes beyond physical health. Social factors like income and proximity to grocery stores have an impact, as do cultural values and knowledge.

Why then, in a country as culturally diverse as Canada, is there such a surprising lack of culinary representation in our food guide?

The new 2019 guide could have presented dominant visuals of affordable foods like frozen vegetables — to connect to more Canadians and tackle food insecurity. (Shutterstock)

The food guide has long been rooted in economic agendas. The 1942 Official Food Rules for Canada were developed to encourage Canadians to eat more, despite food rationing during the Second World War. This was to combat malnutrition and to strengthen soldiers and industry workers. Despite seven changes to the guide between now and then, there have been no suggestions to eat less.

The newly released guide has reduced the conventional four food groups to three — wholegrain foods, fruit and vegetables and protein foods (incorporating the traditional meat, fish and dairy).

The guide has shifted focus away from specific serving sizes of each group, favouring a simpler message of balancing your meals. Using a plate as a guideline, it recommends a diet that is half fruits and vegetables, a quarter whole grains and a quarter proteins.

Yet despite the shift to more realistic guidelines, it does not appear to tackle the important economic, social and cultural barriers many individuals and families face to accessing healthy food.

Fresh fruit is expensive

During a 2013 visit to Canada, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, expressed serious concerns over the severity of food insecurity and hunger across the country.

Food security is defined as the availability, accessibility, affordability and appropriateness of foods for households.

Notably, de Schutter voiced concern about the lack of social protection programs and high rates of food insecurity for low income households, Indigenous populations living off-reserve and new immigrant families.

The new Food Guide continues to emphasize fresh produce through its plate visual. And yet frozen produce is cheaper and still reliably nutritious. And when you’re stressed about money or live far from a Whole Foods, you’re unlikely to prioritize quality over quantity of food.

The new guide could have offered more dominant visuals of affordable food alternatives — for example frozen spinach cubes beside fresh varieties — to connect to more Canadians.

Reconciliation involves Indigenous foods

The guide does consider culture’s role in maintaining a healthy diet, but falls short of incorporating this effectively into its visuals or recipes. The discussion on culture values eating in ways that help “learn about cultural food traditions” or that “keep your cultural roots and food traditions alive.” Yet this section frames culture as a part of “enjoying your food” rather than as a critical part of overall well-being.

Incorporating traditional Indigenous foods (for example game meat, corn soup or wild blueberries) or foods that would be recognizable to newcomers to Canada (such as plantains or cassava for Central American families) would have helped more communities recognize their own diverse histories and cultures.

If we are serious about reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, then this should also be reflected in what foods we recommend as healthy. Health Canada does have an Indigenous-specific food guide, but the language and visuals suggest that this is a “complement” to the main guide. Its grain recommendations, for example, ignore the fight some Indigenous communities are having to reclaim their pre-contact cuisine.

Members of the James Bay Cree of northern Québec roast geese on a fire. (David Dyck Fehderau)

Food sovereignty is the right to healthy, sustainable and culturally appropriate food, and for communities to define their own food systems. Incorporating traditional foods from a variety of Indigenous cultures (for example wild rice, char and fiddleheads) into the main guide would make the recommendations more reflective of the diverse values and cultures that make up our country.

More importantly, it would also help to shape realistic food recommendations for communities where certain foods are more accessible and affordable, particularly for those living off-reserve. In turn, foods that are culturally and physically nourishing may help improve chronic health conditions and promote cultural healing.

Meat and dairy industry influence

Throughout the evolution of the Canada Food Guide, agricultural industries have lobbied for certain foods to be prioritized. The 2007 version drew concerns from health experts, as it suggested a half cup of fruit juice was equal to a serving of fruit. There was also worry that the guide encourages people to eat too much meat and dairy.

Dairy cows walk in a pasture at Nicomekl Farms, in Surrey, B.C., in August 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The 2019 update of the Canada Food Guide makes important changes by removing fruit juice recommendations and encouraging Canadians to drink fewer sugary beverages.

Prior to the update, there were concerns about the agricultural industry’s influence. “Secret” memos from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) stated that emphasis on plant-based proteins would have “negative implications for the meat and dairy industry.” The AAFC also argued against plant-based diets being more sustainable, claiming that the beef industry was making sustainability efforts.

In 2017, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food also recommended the government work with industry to “ensure alignment and competitiveness for domestic industries.”

The new guide however does place more emphasis on plant-based foods than in the past.

Healthy diets depend on sustainable food systems

This is an era of Canadian history defined by climate change, harmful government actions against Indigenous sovereignty and food-insecure families.

And it’s not an impossible task to positively change national food recommendations. Brazil’s 2014 food guide framed diet as “more than just nutrients,” embracing food as a natural part of social life. The guide recommends reducing processed foods (like chips or soft drinks), and increasing culturally appropriate foods (like local plants) that support social and environmental sustainability.

Brazil stated that dietary recommendations need to be tuned into their times, responding to changing food supply and population health. Reacting to social, cultural and environmental changes to food systems isn’t just good for a population’s diet — it makes for more resilience during climatic change and hardship.

There are promising changes to the 2019 guide, which took some inspiration from the Brazil guide’s focus on eating behaviours. Yet the recommendations still fail to consider sustainable options — for example less dependency on imported fresh produce during winter. They do not include thoughtful ways to encourage food security for low-income families, newcomers or Indigenous communities.

Perhaps it’s time for Canada to frame healthy diets as dependent on socially and environmentally sustainable food systems.

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