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Food guide changes likely to influence public, private food providers

Canadians have no shortage of options when it comes to nutrition and dietary advice. On magazine covers, Instagram feeds, gyms and office break rooms, consumers face a daily bombardment of the latest diet trends and “superfood” fads.

But that information overload is precisely the reason the country needs an authoritative source on healthy eating, some experts say.

The “dubious guidance” often found online relies less on science and more on an obsession with diet and weight loss to the neglect of overall health, says Jess Haines, associate professor of applied nutrition at the University of Guelph.

“The guide is an important document to counter those sources that are less evidence-based,” she said.

The food guide informs food policies at publicly funded institutions such schools, hospitals, daycare centres and long-term care facilities, affecting how millions of Canadians eat, said Haines, whom the government consulted on the guide.

The new food guide carries more authority than the previous iteration from 2007, which bore the marks of decades of lobbying from the dairy, grain and meat industries, she said.

Her colleague Mike von Massow, a food economist at the University of Guelph, sees limits to the overhauled guidelines, which endorse plant-based diets over meat, dairy and processed foods.

“I don’t expect there to be a sea change in how we feed people either institutionally or at home,” he said

“In a hospital or many institutional settings there are already dietitians involved in that process and thinking about what is in the best health interests of this student or that patient.”

Industry analyst Olivia Ross of IbisWorld predicts a swift response, however.

“Because the industry is highly competitive, food service contractors may quickly implement the new guidelines by offering more plant-based menu options to gain a competitive advantage,” she said in an email.

Ross qualified that delays could arise due to “logistical challenges” for massive providers such as Aramark Corp., which occupies one-third of Canada’s $5.4-billion food service market, according to IbisWorld.

Even if their menus aren’t re-written overnight, public institutions will help reroute purchase patterns by driving whole foods and veggies onto trays and food trolleys, says Joshna Maharaj, a chef and food activist.

“The biggest impact that I see is in hospitals and potentially prisons, which are two places where there’s the least amount of choice given to the end user. Part of the mandate that we have provincially is that if choice is not offered to patients, the institution has to offer the whole breadth of what the food guide says we should eat,” said Maharaj, former executive chef at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Federal departments such as the Canadian Armed Forces and Correctional Service Canada refer to food guide recommendations when serving meals, Health Canada said in an email.

Meanwhile about 40 per cent of Canadians use the guide to make healthy choices and plan meals, according to a Statistics Canada survey from 2015.

David Speight, executive chef at the University of British Columbia, plans to use the fresh guidelines in an education campaign on healthy beverages, complete with pop-up stations at residences.

“It’s been like Christmas morning for me and my dietitian on campus,” he said.

For both Speight and Maharaj, the guide is just one piece of the plate puzzle.

“This can’t exist in isolation,” said Maharaj. “Can folks on social assistance afford to pay for this? The answer is largely no.”

“The next step is to start investigating how this way of eating can be possible for all 38 million of us.”

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press