Junk food that’s good for you?

Manufacturers may gain the power to fortify products with nutrients

If you think that “nutritious chocolate bar” sounds like an oxymoron, you may be surprised to learn of a controversial proposal Health Canada is reviewing that would give the food industry “discretionary” authority to fortify junk food with vitamins and minerals such as iron and calcium.

In its latest issue, the Canadian Medical Association Journal describes the debate. On the one hand, critics say that this is a cheap way of making junk food seem healthy. They worry that it will encourage consumption and further aggravate Canada’s rising obesity problem. Supporters, on the other hand, argue that if people are going to eat junk food anyway then it might as well contain nutrients.

Wise to the dicey situation, Health Minister Leona Aglukak apparently intercepted changes to the Food and Drugs Regulations before they appeared in the Canada Gazette on Mar. 31, so that they could be further considered. A Health Canada spokesperson told the CMAJ she “balked at the prospect of being labelled the Fortified Junk Food Queen.”

Fortification has been going on for decades in Canada. But historically it’s only occurred when there has been a clear and  widespread deficiency of a nutrient throughout the greater population. Vitamin D has been added to milk since the 1970s to alleviate the incidence of rickets in children; white flour for bread has long been enriched to replace the nutrients lost during processing.

Junk food fortification, however, is misguided, says Dr Yoni Freedhoff, a weight expert in Ottawa, because it won’t address a specific deficiency crisis. If anything, he told the CMAJ, these changes will improve things for processed food companies more than for Canadian consumers. “With the fortification, the food industry will have ample ammunition with which to advertise how helpful their food has now become.”

What’s more, some dissidents are concerned that junk food fortification could put Canadians at risk of consuming dangerously high levels of certain nutrients when these products are eaten in excess or in combination with other nutrient-rich or fortified products, including multivitamin supplements. That’s why Health Canada has so far controlled fortification strictly.

But Health Canada told the CMAJ that “stakeholders” have repeatedly complained that the current regulations are too strict, and actually stunt the development of new products that could be beneficial to Canadians. These proponents point to other countries, including the U.S., where fortification of foods is more open and available to consumers. That means that fortified junk food could lead to more commercial trade of goods.

And Canadians themselves may be in favour of such a move. Focus group testing by Health Canada revealed that people who already consumed junk food said they’d eat fortified versions if the price and taste were the same. “But they did not indicate they would consume more,” a Health Canada spokesperson pointed out to the CMAJ.

Of course, the absence of such a statement by focus group participants doesn’t mean it wouldn’t happen.

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