Thursday, May 14, 2009
Calcium-fortified Doritos and Cheerios is a drug... What's going on?
In Canada, we're awaiting Health Canada's decision to allow the food industry to fortify packaged and processed foods with vitamins and minerals. The decision was supposed to be made end of March but because of division within Health Canada on the merits of fortification, it's been delayed.
Health experts are understandably worried that the proposal will pass and allow junk food manufacturers to add nutrients and market their products as healthy, exacerbating unhealthy eating habits and cause confusion about nutritional benefits of certain foods.
Packaged and processed foods are generally high in calories, sugar, fat, salt, negating any benefit derived from adding some vitamins or minerals to them.
Health Canada stated that its tests on focus groups demonstrated that people are not likely to choose fortified junk food over healthy food... but health experts are skeptical.
The industry group Food and Consumer Products of Canada, representing the majority of packaged foods on the supermarket shelves, argues that fortificaion would allow consumers to more easily meet daily nutritional requriements. That's great but we're not a nation that is nutritonally deficient... given our over-abundance of food. In fact, another concerns is that adding all these vitamins and minerals could lead to an overconsumption of nutients. In order to avoid this, Health Canada claims that the propsed policy will limit the amount of nutrients that can be added to food and won't be left to the the discretion of food manufacturers.
Canada's food industry also argues that the out-of-date and strict fortification policies in Canada make it difficult for them to keep up with other countries and develop innovative food products. Moreover, given the fact that the US allows more products to be fortified, harmonization would cut production costs. Maybe, but doesn't make it right.
The Americans are also more liberal in their labeling laws, something that's finally getting a bit more scrutiny. The FDA has taken action against General Mills for its misleading claims that Cheerios can reduce "bad" cholesterol levels by 4% in 6 weeks and ward off heart disease and cancers of the colon and stomach. (These claims don't appear on Canadian boxes because we're more strict with our labeling laws).
In its letter to General Mills, the FDA states that if the cereal does as indicated, it's acting like a cholesterol-lowering drug and should therefore be treated like a drug- and can't legally be marketed with the claim without an approved new drug application.
Hopefully Health Canada will make the right decsion and not allow fortification of packaged and processed foods... fingers crossed!