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Cheese puffs, with added vitamin D

Canada inches closer to a decision on whether to allow companies to add vitamins and minerals to packaged or processed food

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Will Canadians some day be able to buy junk food pumped full of vitamins and other nutrients?

Controversy is brewing among public-health experts and members of the food industry as Canada inches closer to a decision on whether to allow companies to add vitamins and minerals to packaged or processed food.

Under a policy proposed by Health Canada in 2005, manufacturers would be able to fortify certain foods with nutrients such as thiamin, beta-carotene, vitamin D and calcium as a way to increase access to certain vitamins and minerals. Still at the proposal stage, the policy isn't binding under federal regulations.

It was created after members of the food industry complained that Canada's fortification policy was too restrictive and limited consumer access to new products.

An article released yesterday by the Canadian Medical Association Journal said federal regulations on fortification were expected to be published in March, but have been delayed at the request of Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

Now, many health and nutrition experts hope she will decide to scrap the fortification plan entirely. They fear that more fortification would be used as a marketing gimmick by companies selling packaged or processed food with little nutritional value.

Health Canada's proposal would exclude foods that naturally contain vitamins and minerals, such as fruits, vegetables, pasta, bread, rice, fresh meat and fish, breakfast cereal, spices and seasonings. That would leave items such as frozen dinners or packaged snacks to be fortified.

"I think that almost certainly what it will lead to is the fortification of junk food, of highly processed food, that really we should be discouraging the consumption of," said Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa.

"As soon as we make these foods appear more healthful to consumers, they will choose them more frequently," Dr. Freedhoff said.

Another public-health advocate who took part in the consultation process before the policy was created said he doesn't believe Canadians will benefit from plans to allow companies to fortify convenience foods.

The move could exacerbate the unhealthy eating habits of many Canadians by creating confusion about the nutritional benefits of certain foods, said Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (Canada).

"Those kinds of claims ... can discourage people from consuming foods that are truly nutritious, that are truly beneficial," he said.

Part of the concern stems from the fact that many packaged or processed foods typically contain high levels of either sugar, fat, calories or sodium, which would negate any benefit derived from the inclusion of vitamins, according to health experts.

Fortification of food has started to take hold in the United States, and food manufacturers there are also allowed to make broader claims about the health benefits of certain packaged foods.

General Mills Inc., the maker of Cheerios, is in hot water with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for taking those claims too far. The FDA sent a letter earlier this month to the CEO of General Mills stating that health claims on Cheerios boxes, including that the cereal can help lower cholesterol in six weeks, are unauthorized and must be changed.

Those claims do not appear on Cheerios packages sold in Canada.

Food and Consumer Products of Canada, an industry association that represents many packaged and processed food manufacturers, argues that the introduction of fortified products would give consumers more opportunities to choose foods that could help them meet daily nutritional requirements.

A new report conducted for the group states that Canada should follow the lead of the U.S. and allow more products to be fortified, because such harmonization would streamline the production process and help cut costs.

The association has been lobbying the Canadian government to implement changes to allow more fortification. The group's 2009 annual report states that one of its top priorities for the year is to "advocate to government on discretionary food fortification."

Dr. Freedhoff said he hopes the federal government abandons plans to allow fortification and shifts its focus to educating the public about the health risks of certain types of convenience foods and the importance of eating fresh, whole foods.

"What we should be doing is trying to encourage them and teach them and guide them to make more healthful choices," he said.

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