TORONTO — Two Canadian business leaders want the country’s food industry to use more transparent labels so Canadians know just how much sugar they’re consuming.
Indigo’s CEO and the former CEO of Lululemon are making sugar one of their main targets as they fight to change industry standards.
Sugar is the enemy, said Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo Books and Music Inc. (TSX:IDG) and executive producer of the 2014 documentary Fed Up, which takes on the sugar industry.
Lots of processed food contains high amounts of sugar, she said.
“Today, sugar is in everything — everything,” she said during a presentation to the Toronto Region Board of Trade earlier this week. “It’s in ketchup. It’s in canned foods. It’s in the bread we eat.”
People have become addicted to sugar, contributing to the obesity epidemic, Reisman said. For her part, she’s prohibited Indigo stores from selling chocolate treats at checkout counters to help hungry customers avoid making sugar-laden impulse purchases.
On average, about 13 per cent of calories consumed in Canada come from sugar, according to Canada’s Heart and Stroke Foundation. That’s at least three per cent too much.
The foundation recommends sugar account for no more than 10 per cent of the calories people consume daily, or about 12 teaspoons for an average diet of 2,000 calories a day. The World Health Organization echoes this, but suggests less than five per cent, if possible.
Therefore, Canadians need to change the way they eat, Reisman said — and to succeed they need easier-to-understand food labels.
Currently, food packages list how many grams of sugar are contained in a single serving size (like half a cup).
“You have to be a chemist to understand how much sugar is in the product,” she said.
Instead, Reisman is calling for something more “straightforward,” like the number of teaspoons rather than grams.
Reisman said she proposed the idea to people she said are responsible for re-labelling. “Guess what? No interest whatsoever.”
She was unavailable later to respond to questions about what people she’d met with.
The federal government pledged to revamp food labels in the October 2013 throne speech.
Last June, Health Canada announced its proposed changes.
They include adding what percentage of a person’s daily recommended amount of sugar is contained in a product and grouping all sugars (like fancy molasses) together on the ingredient list. They did not include distinguishing between natural sugars, like those found in fruits and unsweetened fruit juices, and added sugars, which some industry watchers had anticipated.
Health Canada is now in the process of reviewing comments from a public consultation on the proposed changes that ended last August.
A Health Canada spokeswoman would not provide a timeline for when the new regulations would be published, saying it would take the time it needs.
The spokeswoman also said Health Canada could not immediately provide any further details or answer questions about the proposed changes, instead pointing to online information about the public consultation process and the proposed changes, as well as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter to his health minister, Jane Philpott.
In that letter, Trudeau instructed Philpott that one of her top priorities was to improve “food labels to give more information on added sugars” in processed foods.
That kind of transparency in labelling is needed, said Christine Day, the former CEO of Lululemon. She’s now chief executive at Luvo, a company touting nutritious frozen food meals low in sodium and sugar.
There are lots of gaps in labelling practices, she said, but sugar in particular stands out.
Health Canada’s proposal to include the percentage of a serving’s daily recommended amount of sugar is progress, she said. But added sugars, common in foods like yogurt and granola bars that are typically viewed as healthy, should be listed separately.
Day said she has no qualms with doing that for her frozen meal products, which already provide detailed ingredient information.
“As Canadians, whether our government’s ready or not to address the labelling issue, I think businesses are ready to provide solutions to consumers,” Day said.