Canada, the land that legalized medical marijuana and gay marriage, has outlawed a surprising substance: foods labeled as low-carb.
Health Canada, a federal department charged with overseeing development of food and drug regulations, disease prevention, environmental health and medical care, published rules in December 2003 that restrict claims for carbohydrates and sugar content on packaged foods to a few specific conditions, such as those foods required for special dietary use. "Claims such as 'source of complex carbohydrates,' 'low carbohydrate,' and 'light' claims referring to the carbohydrate or sugar content of a food are no longer permitted," according to section 7.23 of the 2003 Guide to Food Labelling and Advertising (bold type from original source).
On Aug. 31, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which enforces the regulations, issued an information letter to "remind the Canadian food industry" of the new regulations. "Due to the recent interest in a number of reduced carbohydrate diets, a variety of carbohydrate claims and statements are appearing on foods sold in Canada," the letter said.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Atkins Nutritionals takes issue with the science used and the conclusions drawn. "We support governmental agencies setting certain standards when it comes to low-carb claims. To throw the baby out with the bathwater may be too extreme, because there's lots of research that has indicated health benefits from avoiding refined carbohydrates," said Colette Heimowitz, vice president of education and research for Atkins.
"Those [claims] that are permitted are based on the most up-to-date nutrition science," said Margot Geduld, a spokeswoman for Health Canada. The agency used dietary guidelines from the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, both based in the United States. "As part of those, it states that 45 to 65 percent of calories should come from carbohydrates to reduce the risk of developing chronic disease," Geduld said.
"That has been the positioning of most major health organizations for the last 20 years, and it's in the last 20 years that we've seen an alarming rate of increase in obesity and diabetes," Heimowitz countered. "We have a crisis."
The Letter of the Law
Charmaine Kuran, program officer at CFIA's Fair Labeling Practices Program, said, "The Food and Drug Regulations prohibit implied or express representations about the amount of a nutrient in a food." This applies to brand names and trademarks as well as advertising.
This means that French Meadow Bakery's low-carb Woman's Bread and Fantastic Foods' line of Carb 'Tastic soup and entrees would have to find new names or marketing approaches. Andrea Stupka, a spokeswoman for Fantastic Foods, said the company was waiting for the regulations to be fleshed out before launching its brand there. Now, she said, "We can understand and implement the regulations that Canada puts into place."
Also prohibited are the terms net carbs, effective carbs, impact carbs and similar terminology, since they have no accepted definitions yet. Such uses were already prohibited under previous rules.
Carbohydrate quantity will continue to be called out in the core nutrition list on package labels.
"The majority of the industry has until Dec. 12, 2005," Geduld said. Companies with annual revenue of less than $1 million have two extra years to comply.
Geduld said manufacturers participated in the development of the 2003 regulations. "They shouldn't be surprised by it."
Even though Canada used U.S. data in developing its regulations, the United States still has not issued similar regulations regarding low-carb claims. "We hope to have a proposed rule out by the end of the year," said a spokesman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Atkins' Heimowitz said the company plans to comply with the regulations. "We will continue to work with agencies' regulations. We just hope that their positioning is such that they take into consideration that controlling carbs is a viable option for people who have failed [with other approaches to weight loss]." Regarding its hopes for FDA's upcoming rule, Heimowitz noted, "It took 10 years for the government to come up with standards for the organic seal, so we don't expect them to turn around very quickly."
The FDA spokesman acknowledged that IOM and NAS are frequent sources of information for the FDA, but couldn't speculate as to whether other sources would be used, or what conclusions might be reached. However, he said, "We're free to entertain any studies [that] are out there. What we really need to look at is the relevance of the information [that] we have at hand."
CFIA's Kuran said her agency would initially be focused on educating manufacturers and importers because "the regulations have changed substantially." After the education phase, CFIA will consider taking action with companies that violate the regulations. "There's a range of things that could happen," she said, "depending on the history of the company," and whether it had received previous notification that it was in violation of labeling rules.
Kuran said ultimately retailers could be held responsible if they carry products that violate the rules. "The regulations are general and apply to anybody," she said, noting the language states "No person shall sell ? ." But such a scenario seems unlikely, at least for the time being. "Generally, we'll be actioning at the manufacturing and importing level," she said.