ARCHIVED - Defining "Healthy" Foods: Environmental Scan of the Situation in Canada (2009) - Executive Summary

Highlights of the Report

This report is a summary of a paper that was commissioned by Health Canada to provide an overview of policies and programs in Canada that use nutrition criteria to define "healthy" foods. It includes accompanying feedback and perspectives from a small sampling of key organizations with programs and/or policies that define healthy foods and of other stakeholders with an interest in this topic.

A variety of policies and programs exist in Canada that use nutrition criteria to define "healthy" foods in a number of venues, including 15 provincial nutrition policies; at least 20 local school board nutrition policies; eight front of pack labelling programs in grocery stores, seven food services programs and six vending machine programs in schools and recreation centres. A significant number of stakeholders identified the lack of standardization of these different approaches as a key issue and indicated that they would like to see standardization at least within specific applications.

Full Executive Summary


A number of policies and programs exist in Canada that attempt to assist consumers in selecting healthier options in different environments, whether it's at the grocery store, restaurants, schools or public places. Inconsistencies in the nutrition criteria used in these policies and programs have led to various stakeholders asking for federal action to establish criteria for the purpose of providing a definition of "healthy food" for specific applications, including front-of-pack (FOP) labelling, national school nutrition guidelines, and advertising of foods and beverages to children.


A scan was undertaken to identify programs and policies at the national, provincial and regional levels that use nutrition criteria to define "healthy" foods. These programs and policies were from provincial and regional governments, and industry and health organizations including non-governmental organizations, corporate and consumer websites as well as the research literature. Nineteen stakeholder interviews were conducted. An additional fifteen stakeholders who had publicly expressed an interest on this issue but do not have programs or policies that define "healthy" foods were also approached to be interviewed. Of those contacted, 13 submitted their perspectives.

Key Findings

There are currently two national policies that use nutrition criteria to define "healthy" foods. in Canada: the Canadian Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CAI) and Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide (Canada's Food Guide).Provincially, most of the existing policies and programs that use nutrition criteria to define "healthy" food fall within the domain of school food guidelines.

Programs that use nutrition criteria to define "healthy" foods exist in a number of venues including grocery stores (front-of-pack labelling), restaurants/foodservice, schools (vending machines and cafeterias), and recreation centres. One FOP labelling program has been developed by a non-profit organization (Heart and Stroke Foundation) whereas the rest are offered by either the food manufacturer or retailer.

Stakeholders' Perspectives

Perspectives on the role of the Federal Government for defining "healthy" foods and whether or not there should be standardization by the Federal Government for defining "healthy" foods were obtained from 29 select stakeholders from provincial governments, non-profit organizations, and industry. Whether or not these stakeholders were in favour of or against the Federal Government taking a role in defining "healthy" foods, all indicated that there are guiding principles or conditions that would be necessary for the successful development and implementation of a definition of "healthy" foods if this task was to be taken by the Federal Government. These guiding principles include being evidence-based, having transparency in the process, and engaging stakeholders.

Concluding Notes

Should Health Canada decide to move forward in developing a standardized definition of "healthy" foods, the following considerations would be important to keep in mind:

  • Consumer input and research: There is a significant lack of research on how consumers perceive front-of-pack labelling, school nutrition programs and advertising to children. Having such insight may provide Health Canada with strong rationale for its decisions.
  • In-depth, multi-sectoral consultation: This element was raised by almost all stakeholders regardless of their perspective.
  • Frame the discussion: Given the diversity of stakeholder views as well as the diversity in "healthy" food policies and programs, Health Canada should consider various approaches to frame the issue for consultation and research.

To receive copies of the full report, please contact Publications.

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