Novel Foods

What are novel foods?

Change is nothing new, especially when it comes to food.

Just as, more than 145 years ago, Louis Pasteur found a way to kill bacteria in beer by applying heat, modern technology keeps coming up with innovative processes for the preparation of the foods we eat.

With international travel now common and globalization bringing faraway countries into closer contact, tastes are also changing. People want to try foods that are different than those their parents ate.

As well, advances in genetics have meant that crop breeders are offering farmers new seeds with different traits.

These are all called novel foods - foods that have been produced through new processes, that do not have a history of safe use as a food, or that have been modified by genetic manipulation. Under the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations, all novel foods must be assessed by Health Canada before they can be sold in Canada.

After a company submits detailed scientific data for review, Health Canada's Food Directorate scientists - experts in molecular biology, microbiology, toxicology, chemistry and nutrition - rigorously assess whether the novel food meets Canadian and international standards, and is totally safe to use.

For example, when a food company wanted to market ready-to-eat meat treated with high hydrostatic pressure (compressed water) to control listeriosis bacteria, it filed a pre-market notification for the right to do so. Another company wanted to sell unpasteurized apple cider processed with ultraviolet light to kill the E. coli bacteria that cause contamination. Both of these novel foods derived from novel processes were assessed and found to be safe.

Substances without a history of safe use might be foods previously consumed by small, isolated populations – such as nuts eaten only by tribes in the Amazon jungle. Or, it could be a new species of fish found to contain health-enhancing nutrients. Companies need to provide proof that the novel foods they want to sell are safe for consumption. Recently approved novel foods include a food oil derived from microscopic algae found to contain Omega 3 – the fatty acid that lowers LDL cholesterol levels – and a vegetable-based oil that had never been used as a food source.

Foods that have been genetically altered are often called genetically modified foods, GM foods or genetically engineered foods. For example, Health Canada approved the sale of various soybean lines genetically modified to resist herbicides and of various corn lines modified to make them insect resistant.

Regardless how a novel food is produced, it must be proven to be safe and nutritious. Then - and only then - can it be sold in Canada.

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