A Guide to the Canadian Nutrition Labelling Changes

Cameron Prince
Contributing Writer

For several years, the Canadian government has been planning a revamp of its health policies. As in many other nations, chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and high blood pressure are ongoing health concerns. Improved science has linked diet to these public health issues, thus spurring a need for an update to nutrition labelling — a change that hasn’t been made in over two decades.

Moreover, consumers are also changing their eating habits. They’re more educated than ever and are becoming increasingly aware of nutrition facts. The new labelling requirements aim to give consumers the information they need to make educated decisions about nutrient and calorie intake.

A Background on Canadian Labelling Laws

At a high level, food policy in Canada is driven by the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations, which is similar to the FDA in the U.S. This body of law is the explicit authority for nutrition labelling and requires the disclosure of certain nutrients. It also created guidelines for voluntary disclosures and nutrient and health claims and is based on total daily dietary recommendations.

The New Rules for Canadian Nutrition Labelling

The new rules for nutrition labelling in Canada fall under the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations (SFCR), which cover licensing, Preventive Controls, and traceability for food manufacturers in Canada and importers. They are governed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and are equivalent to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in the U.S., in that they require HACCP-style preventive controls. The first wave of rules rolled out in 2018 and took effect in 2020, and required all importers and manufacturers to be licensed.

The nutrition labelling component of the law will tentatively go into effect in December 2021, but due to delays brought on by COVID-19, it’s possible the date could get pushed back further.

Components of the New Rule

Labelling requirements are often complex, but one of the overarching objectives of the new rule is to simplify and standardize nutrition information. While detailed requirements can be found on the official Government of Canada website, here are the critical updates to prepare for.

Nutrition Facts Table

The updated nutrition facts table has several differences from the previous style:

  1. Larger serving size text- The serving size is emphasized with larger text to enhance visibility.

  2. Larger calories text- Calories are also displayed in a larger, bold font which is underlined so it can be quickly identified by consumers.

  3. Daily value percentage changes- Over the last 20 years, daily value percentages have changed. Values for nutrients listed on labels, such as sodium, cholesterol, fat, and proteins, will reflect these updates.

  4. Sugar content updates- The new labelling rules aim to call consumers’ attention to sugar content in food. Not only does sugar now have a daily value percentage assigned to it, but there’s also a footnote that appears beneath the table to indicate low versus high sugar content. Specifically, the note states that 5% or less is a little, while 15% or more is a lot. The goal of this addition is to provide context for the daily value percentage for sugar.

  5. Updated list of minerals- To address public health concerns, the list of minerals has also been updated. Because Canadians are getting enough of the vitamins A and C, these minerals have been removed from nutrition labels. Potassium, however, will be included on the label, as experts have found that consumers don’t always consume adequate values.

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Ingredient List

Several changes have been made to the ingredient list to promote readability:

  1.  Increased font size - Minimum type height requirements are in place to ensure the ingredients list can be read with ease.

  2.  White or neutral background - A white or very light-colored background is now required. The list must appear in black text with a black border.

  3. Bullets or commas - Items in the list may be separated by either bullets or commas.

  4. Grouping of sugars-based ingredients - Previously, sugars could appear in various places on an ingredients list, which made it difficult for consumers to determine how many ingredients were sugars or sugar-based. Now, all sugar-based ingredients must be grouped together in parentheses after “sugars” are listed as an ingredient.

  5. Bolded allergens - Any allergens will be listed beneath ingredients after the word “contains,” which appears in bold print.

  6. Food colors listed by name- Food colors cannot be listed as obscure ingredients; they must be listed under their common names.

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Serving Size

Serving sizes have been notoriously complex under traditional labelling requirements. For instance, sizes might vary across various types of containers. The new rules were made with the intention of making it simpler to compare foods, preventing consumers from having to do the mental math to determine appropriate portion sizes.

Now, there are standardized serving sizes for foods that can be measured. Regardless of the container size, the recommended serving will be the same size. This is particularly useful for foods such as yogurt, which may be sold in single servings or larger tubs.

There are also standard servings for foods which can be counted or divided. Previously, serving sizes would be varied from one type of cracker to the next, for example. Now, standard counts are made based on weight, so consumers can compare nutritional value across different crackers even if they aren’t the same shape or size.

Bread, too, had varied serving sizes. Decision makers have agreed that the standard serving size for bread should be two slices, based on normal consumption patterns. All bread products will therefore list nutrition facts for that amount.  

Compliance Date

While the anticipated compliance date is December 15, 2021 – the time when the five-year phase in for SFCR ends – Health Canada has indicated that there may be a further extension of one year for compliance. An official decision has not been made yet, however.

Any labels made or imported prior to the final date may still be sold.

Enforcement for Canada’s New Labelling Rules

Labelling compliance will be part of a company’s Preventive Controls Plan, which is a condition of SFCR license for manufacturers and importers. CFIA will audit importers, and labelling will be part of the audit. Only U.S. companies can have a CFIA import license, and the accountability for compliance will lie with the importer.

Most CFIA label inspections are driven by complaints, both consumer and commercial. Because the primary concern of the CFIA is safety, however, labelling matters are often considered a lesser priority than issues related to safety. In most cases of noncompliance, companies will have the opportunity to correct their labels, unless there has been a significant violation, such as fraudulent practices.

Although there’s still time before the compliance dates arrive, Canadian companies and U.S.-based manufacturers that ship to Canada will want to begin thinking about the changes soon. Labelling changes can take considerable time to plan for and execute. Moreover, if your company sells products that could be affected by the labelling changes – whether the product has high sugar content or you previously leveraged high vitamin C content in your marketing – now is also a good time to think about how the update might impact sales and what you can do to address any challenges.

About the Author

Cameron Prince is Vice President of Regulatory Affairs for The Acheson Group (TAG). With over 35 years of experience in food regulatory programs and the food industry in both the US and Canada, he most recently held the most senior executive position at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) as Vice President of Operations. He also led the Food Safety Modernization initiative now underway in Canada under the Safe Food for Canadians Act (SFCA).

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