Ultra-processed foods in Canada: Consumption, impact on diet quality and policy implications
Auteurs: Jean-Claude Moubarac
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Chronic diseases such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease and metabolic syndrome, as well as obesity, amount to a public health crisis in Canada, other high-income countries, and now globally. They result in loss of well-being and productive life, and cause disability and premature death. The cost of their treatment is now an intolerable burden on Canada’s health services. The diseases mentioned here, and others, are largely preventable by healthy diets. Up to date national dietary guidelines are needed, together with corresponding public policies and actions. So far, guidelines have been based on conventional food groups and nutrients. This made sense in the days when most food was consumed in the form of home-prepared dishes and meals, and rates of chronic diseases and obesity were far lower than they are now. Such guidelines are now evidently ineffective. Now in Canada most food that is produced and consumed is processed, packaged and made ready to eat or to heat. Guidelines and public policies and actions need to take food processing into account, as recommended by the Canadian Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology 2016 report Obesity in Canada A Whole-of-Society Approach for a Healthier Canada. This report assesses the relationship between types of food processing and the quality of diets in Canada, using the 2015 Canadian Community Health Survey-Nutrition. It also uses the well-recognised and attested NOVA system of food classification according to the nature, purpose and extent of food processing. It isolates what the NOVA system identifies as ultra-processed foods, as particularly unhealthy. These food products now amount to virtually half the dietary energy consumed by Canadians. It reinforces many other studies conducted in Canada, the US and other countries consistently showing that healthy diets contain only small amounts of ultra-processed foods, and the less these are consumed, the better. What this report also shows is that healthy diets as still consumed by a substantial fraction of the Canadian population, are mainly made up of freshly prepared dishes and meals prepared from unprocessed or minimally processed foods, mostly plant-based, together with processed culinary ingredients and some processed foods. They include only small amounts of ultra-processed foods. These findings should now be incorporated into Canadian dietary guidelines and public policies and actions designed to create and maintain healthy food systems and supplies for all Canadians. Everybody, such as people in government at all levels, in professional and civil society organisations and in industry, and caterers, family members and people personally, need to be sure what healthy diets consist of and what healthy foods are.
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