Canada Food Guide update isn’t bringing home the bacon

By Treena Hein 

Canada’s new food guide raised the eyebrows of the meat and livestock sector across the country.

Unless you were on another planet for the past year, you couldn’t have missed the fact that many headlines in 2018 and early 2019 focussed on the impending update and subsequent release of the new Canada Food Guide. The revision was completed by a multidisciplinary team at Health Canada that included researchers, policy experts, registered dietitians and communications specialists, but both the process and the new content have frustrated Canadian livestock commodity groups. 

Officials from Health Canada’s Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion did not meet with representatives from the food and beverage industry because it was important to ensure that the development of dietary guidance was free from conflict of interest.  ~ Geoffrey Legault-Thivierge, Health Canada

In the past, any industry stakeholder had the opportunity to comment on planned revisions, but that changed during the preparation and research phase of the most recent edition.

“Officials from Health Canada’s office of nutrition policy and promotion did not meet with representatives from the food and beverage industry,” explained Health Canada spokesperson Geoffrey Legault-Thivierge, because “it was important to ensure that the development of dietary guidance was free from conflict of interest.”

In terms of the eventual release of the new Guide in January 2019, various commodity groups were not pleased with some major changes. Since 1977, there had been four food groups in the Guide – milk and milk products, meat and alternatives, grain products, and fruits and vegetables – that has now been reduced to three. The ‘milk and milk products’ category is gone, as is the ‘meat and alternates’ group, and both have now been combined into one larger category called ‘protein.’  

Health Canada didn’t consult with the meat and livestock sector because the agency wanted to stick to the science of the matter. Other than the reduction in animal-based protein, the meat industry isn’t taking issue with the other messaging.

There is also a much greater emphasis in the new guide on consuming plant-based protein. Even the main visual itself, the plate of food that every Canadian recognizes as being the symbol of the guide, hardly shows any meat. Legault-Thivierge says Canadians are now being encouraged to eat plant-based proteins (such as beans, legumes, rice, quinoa, soybeans and nuts) “because eating more nuts or soy protein is linked to improved blood lipid levels, and the higher fibre intake of plant-rich diets is linked to improved blood lipid levels and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, and type two diabetes.” He adds that “processed meat has been linked to colorectal cancer, and foods that contain mostly saturated fat are linked to unfavourable blood lipid levels and a higher risk of type two diabetes.” 


The reaction to this emphasis on getting more protein from plant-based sources has not been received favourably by the meat industry. For example, Rick Bergmann, chair of the board at Canada Pork, stated in a news story thathe’s concerned Canadians might interpret the new version as a recommendation to reduce meat consumption in favour of plant-based proteins.

“Itwould be unfortunate if Canadians interpret this bias toward plant-based proteins as a signal to remove red meat from their diets,”read a statement from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

Mary Ann Binnie, manager of nutrition and industry relations at the Canadian Pork Council, agrees. She notes off the top that the new plate graphic isn’t very much different compared to those of previous versions of the guide.

Mary Ann Binnie, Canadian Pork Council says lean meats are still a foundation food. 
Photo courtesy Canadian Pork Council

“Healthy eating remains a balance and variety of lean meats, plenty of vegetables and fruits and whole grains.  We would have obviously preferred to have pork included as a protein shown in the protein group, but there wasn’t a piece of pork in the last version, released in 2007,” she explains. “In terms of animal protein, the previous version had illustrations of a roast, eggs, a whole fish. Animal and plant proteins have always been in the same food group.”

As to the name change of the ‘meat and alternates’ category to ‘protein,’ Binnie believes it highlights the fact that Canadians are looking for more protein in their diets, and that it also helps clarify for them what protein includes. “It sounds strange, but there are some people out there who don’t realize that meat is a protein source, so in that light, the category name change is positive,” she observes. “There has been so much buzz around protein shakes and protein bars that some people have been misinformed.” 

We are relying on dieticians and other health professionals to convey to Canadians that lean meats are, and have always been, a foundational food in the diet.   ~ Mary Ann Binnie, Canadian Pork Council

Another big misperception out there about our diets, adds Binnie, is that we eat too much meat. She warns that if groups such as young women interpret the guide’s emphasis on eating more plant-based protein as a directive to reduce meat consumption, there may be serious health consequences for them from Vitamin B12, iron deficiency and more.  

Indeed, Binnie believes any discussion of eating less of certain foods to accommodate the consumption of more plant-based protein should focus on eating fewer low-nutrition convenience food products, commonly known as junk food or empty calories. “Chips and cookies and other highly-processed food products should be the focus as to what should come out of the diet,” she says. “It shouldn’t be lean pork.” 

In her submission to HESA during the consultations before the guide was released, Dr. Sangita Sharma, professor in Indigenous and global health research at University of Alberta, echoed the concerns.

“Some of the recommendations…focus on promoting plant-based protein foods and recommend reducing Canadians’ overall consumption of animal-based protein foods, particularly red meat. Given current research from both my group and others, this is extremely concerning and we believe this could result in some negative heath impacts, including nutrient inadequacies and deficiencies. Plant-based sources of protein do not provide anywhere near the nutrients as provided by animal-based proteins and certainly do not provide the nutrients we know many Canadians are lacking.” 

Consumers are getting creative with their meat consumption, using it sparingly and pairing it with a diverse assortment of veggies and whole grains.
Photo courtesy Canadian Pork Council

Will the new guide actually affect and lower pork consumption long-term?

“We are hoping not,”said Binnie. “We are relying on dieticians and other health professionals to convey to Canadians that lean meats are, and have always been, a foundational food in the diet. We are, in collaboration Canada Beef and the Canadian Meat Council, having an exhibit and offering resources at the Dieticians of Canada Conference in June.”

The Canadian Pork Council is also developing a new strategic plan based on updated Guide, and it’s going to conduct some surveys of dieticians across the country to determine their level of knowledge about protein, the value of lean meat and so on, and to discover the questions that dieticians might have about the same topics. They are then going to develop more resources accordingly. 

Let’s not fool another generation in the process to understand that animal protein is good protein as well. ~Darcy Fitzgerald, Alberta Pork

For his part, Darcy Fitzgerald, executive director at Alberta Pork, notes that in the past, consumers were told animal fats, butter and eggs were bad for them – but that things certainly do change.

“Only to discover that eggs are truly a superfood and those plant-based trans fats and sugars that replaced healthy animal fats have plagued a generation or two with significant health problems,” he said, questioning when moderation, balance and omnivore became bad words. “Let’s not fool another generation in the process to understandthat animal protein is good protein as well.”