A few weeks ago, Health Canada launched a new version of Canada’s Food Guide. It’s been 15 years since the guide was last updated. There are several changes of interest to vegetarians.

The guide still uses a rainbow design, but fruits and vegetables now take the place of grains on the outer band. The veggie and grain bands are now wider than the milk and meat bands. The Milk group has been renamed “Milk and Alternatives“ and includes fortified soymilk. The “Meat and Alternatives“ group now emphasizes the vegetarian options instead of meats. The first recommendation is to eat “meat alternatives such as beans, lentils and tofu often.”

While there have been some advances for vegetarians, the guide is far from perfect. Milk and Meat continue to be two of the four categories, and the only vegan milk alternative mentioned is soymilk. They recommend eating fish, but provide a footnote warning about limiting exposure to mercury. Presumably the fish promotion is to wean meat eaters away from land animals, and to provide a source of Omega-3. Unfortunately, there is no mention of vegetarian sources of omega-3. The guide also does little to address concerns about obesity and junk food.

Image: The previous version of the food guide from 1992.

Not perfect

Criticisms have been directed at the advisory committee set up to oversee the revision. The 12 members included representatives from the BC Dairy Foundation, the Food and Consumer Products Manufacturers of Canada, and a group representing the oilseed industry.

One outspoken critic, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, who treats obesity at the Bariatric Institute in Ottawa, is worried that major food manufacturers had too much of a voice.

“I imagine that those companies would not want the words ‘junk food’ mentioned anywhere in the Food Guide. The Food Guide should have very, very clear messages about foods that are not healthy choices, including red meat … We are the No. 2 beef producer in the world. And I imagine that [fact] may well impact … appropriate recommendations about beef consumption.”

To invite the food industry into the creation of the food guide is just asking for trouble. It doesn’t make good medical sense to include people with a vested interest in the recommendations.

The public was given some input. Last year, Toronto Vegetarian Association participated in an online consultation on Canada’s Food Guide revision and we were present for a consultation meeting held in Toronto on April 4, 2006.

Embracing diversity

On a positive note, the guide takes account of Canada’s growing ethnic diversity by including foods from different cultures. And there is also information tailored to children, teens and adult men and women. People can develop their own customized guide, using the Internet.

The online version‘s FAQ page addresses vegetarians: “Canada’s Food Guide is suitable for vegetarians. To ensure adequate nutrient intake, vegetarians can choose either milk or fortified soy beverages as part of the Milk and Alternatives food group; and a variety of meat alternatives such as beans, lentils, eggs, tofu, soy-based meat substitutes, nuts, nut butters and seeds from the Meat and Alternatives food group.”

Whole grain foods and healthy oils are emphasized in the new version. They also recommend eating at least one dark green and one orange vegetable each day.

According to a report by the CBC, the guide has a huge influence: “If you’ve ever eaten meals in schools, hospitals, retirement homes, or any other institutional setting, chances are their menus were directly derived from the Food Guide.”

Canada’s Food Guide is the second-most requested government document, after income-tax forms.

Sources
CBC – Canada’s Food Guide: A nutritional juggling act
Toronto Star – New Canada Food Guide issued