Ontario’s Healthy Menu Choices Act: A Nutrition Professional Weighs In

by Rosanna Lee

As we celebrate the arrival of spring, longer days, and Nutrition Month in March (YAY!), many of us begin to re-evaluate our own eating habits yet again.

Perhaps we’re not vying for the best beach body, but most of us are concerned about our health for the long haul. What’s more is that we are still struggling against the growing weight issues in our country amongst adults, teens, and even young children alike. What we do recognize, however, is the continued importance that nutrition and food plays towards our well-being and longevity.

On January 1st, 2017, the Ontario government mandated that large restaurant chains and food service providers (with more than 20 locations) display calorie counts on their menus. As per the Healthy Menu Choices Act, we will now be able to see calories per serving at all large chain restaurant/ food service areas that we visit within Ontario. Although calorie counts may help us make more “informed choices” as a consumer, it is a small slice of the pie when we’re tackling weight concerns, obesity and their associated chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease, stroke, cancer and arthritis.

Here’s the flipside. Calorie counts can be helpful when you know how to read them and how to compare them against the other items on the menu, while being mindful of portion sizes and what one serving exactly is. For the most part, consumers are not aware of this, unless of course, they have been reading up on credible websites or have been seeing a dietitian. In most cases, consumers would just go for a “lower calorie” item on the menu, even though low may be registering at 800 calories for Combo #15.

Don’t get me wrong, displaying calories isn’t a bad idea, but it would be interesting to see whether consumers really understand and can apply caloric knowledge to daily food intake (outside of the restaurant). When you have no comparison between menu items at smaller restaurants or at grocery stores serving hot entrees (which this regulation does not apply), it becomes harder to figure out which food items are “better choices.”

On another note, we can’t exactly deprive ourselves of calories and go overkill with the numbers. Although the government is taking a great first step towards making calories more visible to consumers, the focus needs to go back to Percentage Daily Value (%DV), a more useful tool in my opinion. However, this regulation has only been applied to manufactured consumer food products with packaging that require a Nutrition Facts panel.

So why suggest this alternative? Percentage Daily Values provide a relative comparison of what the food provides out of the recommended daily amounts per nutrient based on a 2,000-calorie daily allowance. This means we can look at calories and what percentage of it comes from trans fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, fiber, etc. and how they compare with the recommended daily maximum amounts. Ontario Public Health may want to provide the public with nutrition education on how to use %DV to help Ontarians eat healthier.

5% DV or less is a little and 15% DV or more is a lot. Therefore, if you’re trying to be healthier, opt for products with 5% or less of saturated and trans fats, and sodium, for example. Yet, the downside to this is that such labels cannot be applied to foods like raw and fresh produce, meat and seafood, but this is a battle for another day. Whether the concept of %DV will go forward or not would be interesting to watch. Health Canada is expected to release a new food guide in 2018-2019 with a stronger focus on food labelling with regards to key nutrients like sodium, sugars, and saturated fats, similar to what is already implemented in Chile. At present, the new Canadian food guide is undergoing public consults to see whether the recommendations fit with the health and nutrition needs of Canadians.

Rosanna is a nutrition and health professional based in Toronto and Buffalo. She has a strong academic and clinical background in dietetics, nutrition, food and health. Rosanna is currently completing her dietetic internship and graduate research at D’Youville College in Buffalo, New York. Her interests are in nutrition education, technology, social media, public health, research, and community outreach. Find Rosanna on LinkedIn

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