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Low-carb claim hard to swallow
Health Canada serves up new rules for product labelling

The federal government is putting Canadian food producers on a strict carbohydrate labelling diet that could knock a number of new product lines off grocery store shelves next year.

Health Canada says there’s no scientific evidence to support low-carb diets, such as the ubiquitous Atkins diet, and the absence is reflected in new rules on labelling that come into effect in December, 2005.

"There was - and still is - no reason from a nutrient point of view to be concerned with the amount of carbs that we eat," Carole Saindon, a spokeswoman for Health Canada, said in an interview.

So when Health Canada published its new regulations last year, carbohydrate claims were ruled off limits for future food and drink labels.

"Low fat is one of them. Low sodium is one of them. But low carb is not," Saindon said.

The restrictions, which come into effect next year for large companies and in 2007 for producers with revenues below $1 million, don’t stop there.

A Health Canada information letter has informed the industry that "express or implied representations" are prohibited.

"This means that other statements about the presence or absence of carbohydrates, including the use of brand names and trademarks, are subject to these regulations," says the letter.

The rule change comes as literally thousands of new low-carb products are being introduced in the United States, many of them spilling over into Canada.

In April, Unilever Canada launched a 22-product Carb Options line, following a January launch in the U.S. It was one of 1,863 products or packages with low-carb claims introduced this year, according to one U.S. market research firm.

Products range from beer and cola to salad dressing and cereal.

Kraft has a line called CarbWell and General Mills has Carb Monitor, although a General Mills spokeswoman said their line has not been launched in Canada.

None of the major low-carb products may be sold here as such after Dec. 12, 2005, said a spokeswoman for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which enforces labelling rules.

Trademarks such as Carb Options and CarbWell are "implying there’s something about carbohydrate in the food - either that there’s a low level or some level or no level or that there’s something better about theirs," said the agency’s Charmaine Kuran.

"Most of those types of trademarks that you’ll see on the market we will not be accepting once they move over to the new labelling regulations."

Unilever Canada disputes the interpretation. Nutritionist Lucia Weiler said the company is well aware of the new regulations but does not agree the Carb Options name contravenes them.

"As we understand the (Health Canada) letter and the current laws, our products are compliant and will be compliant," said Weiler. "We stand behind our product, that they’re fully compliant and they’re out there to meet a consumer need."

Kuran speculated that food producers are simply using the old rules, still in effect, for short-term market gain, "probably trying to take advantage of the trend right now to sell carbohydrate-reduced products - or products that even mention how much carbohydrate they have in them."

Continuing consumer demand has recently come into question, however, with some industry leaders suggesting there’s a glut of low-carb products in a shrinking market.

"While we are clearly seeing that the low-carb trend, or fad, has peaked and it looks like it is taking a bit of a dive in the supermarkets, we have yet to see the recovery of those (other food) categories that were impacted by low-carb," Kellogg CEO Carlos Gutierrez told investors in a July conference call.

These divergent trends are compelling to food producers and regulators alike.

While diets such as Atkins arguably are waning, carb-conscious consumers abound.

"The phenomenon is huge, but it’s all in how you ask it," said market researcher Glenys Babcock of Ipsos-Reid in Toronto.

Summer surveys in 2003 and 2004 found that, while the number of Canadians who say they’re on the Atkins diet is roughly 4 per cent, some 63 per cent of respondents agreed they are trying to limit carbohydrate consumption. A third strongly agreed.

Ipsos-Reid also found that 81 per cent of respondents wanted federal regulation of low-carb claims on food and beverage labels. And 86 per cent wanted provincial health ministries to do more to inform people about the risks or benefits of low-carb diets.

Among the new labelling rules is a revised Nutrifacts table which includes carbohydrate content among the 13 nutrients that must be measured.

"Consumers can still choose to eat more or less on their own," said Health Canada’s Saindon.

The Star - 22 September 2004
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