Fine for packing “unbalanced” daycare lunch demonstrates shortcomings of Canada’s Food Guide

Commentary, Agriculture, Steve Lafleur

A Manitoba mother received a $10 fine from a daycare centre for sending her kids with a meal that was deemed nutritionally unbalanced. The story caught the attention of international audiences, since the meal was, by most accounts, nutritionally balanced. The Ritz crackers the daycare fed her kids to “balance” their meals rendered the incident outright farcical.

While much of the backlash has been directed towards the provincial government, this incident stems from dogmatically following Canada’s Food Guide, an outdated and flawed document. Most Canadians agree that we, as a society, should ensure that children are well nourished. But the federal government cannot be counted on to do so.

The first step towards ensuring that children are eating healthy would be identifying what constitutes a healthy diet. The Feds can’t even do that right. The federal government should stick to ensuring that food producers provide customers with information about their products, rather than providing dietary advice.

Canada’s Food Guide sets out guidelines recommending that Canadians eat specific numbers of servings of: vegetables and fruits; grain products; milk and alternatives; and meat and alternatives. Let’s assume that the balance and nature of the food groups recommended is sensible (a generous concession). There are still two major problems.

First, the guidelines don’t recognize similarities with many products across groups, and the vast difference between different foods within those groups. For instance, one can easily substitute a helping of fruits for grains, since fruits can contain as much (or more) dietary fiber as many grain products. On the other hand, many foods within the same group have varying levels of nutrients. Vitamin dense foods such as spinach and kale are more nutritional than, say, iceberg lettuce. Similarly, rye bread is more nutritious than white bread. Yet, the Guide is indifferent to these crucial details.

The second problem is that nutritional needs vary dramatically from person to person. While the Food Guide makes some allowance for variances based on age, it doesn’t account for the fact that people with different body types and in different states of health require differing amounts of calories and nutrients. A bulky 220 lbs man standing at 6’2” requires more nutrients than a thin man of 5’. The daily recommended values printed on food labels are even more problematic, since they make not allowances for differences whatsoever. A beverage that contains 100% of the “daily value” of vitamin C might actually not contain 100% of what a particular person actually requires.

Further complicating the matter are the 5% of children aged 0-17 have food allergies or intolerances that require them to balance their diets in fundamentally different ways. For instance, people who are allergic to dairy can eat more green vegetables and nuts to consume enough calcium. Those who are allergic to eggs can substitute fish (such as herring and sardines) to get the Vitamin D that many people receive from eggs (the aforementioned fish are also high in calcium, and don’t pose a mercury risk).

These are not only examples of how some people need differing amounts of food from each group, but how irrelevant those categories are to begin with. The nutrients people consume are more important than whether they come from the oven, a tree, or a fishing net.

Looking at Canada’s Food Guide, it is easy to see the influence lobby groups can have on food guidelines. The fact that food groups are based on various types of agricultural products, rather than on required nutrients is illustrative. One can imagine powerful agricultural lobbies would revolt, were Health Canada to remedy this.

The lack of any category for healthy fats is also telling. Health professional recommend consuming nuts and olive oil, which don’t get a mention. It’s as though they still believe in faddish low-fat diets.

We should be skeptical of taking health advice from the federal government, when they appear to base their recommendations on appeasing interest groups, rather than on nutritional science.

The federal government should have a role in food safety and labelling, focusing  on ensuring safety, and increasing consumer information. Food labelling ensures that customers know what they are buying without having to rely on third party information.

The federal government may be doing more harm than good when they venture into dietary recommendations. Though there are many spurious sources of nutritional information, it would be better to allow Canadians to consult other sources than to institutionalize poor dietary advice.