Overall, diet quality among Canadians is poor, with less than 1% meeting the criteria for a ‘healthy’ diet, according to Canada’s Food Guide recommendations. A large contributor to poor diet quality in Canada relates to the types of foods and beverages frequently consumed. In Canada, as in other Western countries, approximately three-quarters of the food supply comes from packaged, processed food items. Of particular concern is the increased consumption of “ultra-processed,” ready-to-consume foods, which are typically energy dense with high fat, sugar and sodium content. High consumption of ultra-processed foods has been associated with the development of dyslipidemia from pre-school age to primary school age among children with higher rates of consumption, including a greater increase in total and LDL cholesterol. In addition, about one-quarter of the average Canadian food budget is spent on food away from the home in restaurant and fast food settings. Greater frequency of eating outside-the-home is associated with higher caloric intake, and increased risk for insulin resistance and obesity.
OUR RESEARCH GOALS
Our research on the food supply enables us to monitor particular nutrients in the food supply over time (e.g., sodium, sugar or trans fat), understand the overall nutritional quality of foods available in Canada, and explore food label characteristics that drive consumer choice (e.g., nutrition claims, marketing to children, food price). This type of research helps to guide Canadian nutrition policy development, implementation and evaluation, in order to help Canadian consumers eat healthy and manage chronic diseases. For example, some of the types of research questions that we can answer include:
- Have sodium levels decreased in the food supply over time?
- What is the proportion of food products marketed to children in the food supply?
- What is the overall nutritional quality of foods marketed as ‘gluten free’?
- How are serving sizes and calories in restaurant foods changing over time?
In Canada, the majority of research on the nutritional quality of the packaged and restaurant food supply has come from our lab (see publications for a full listing of our research on this topic). This research has determined that the majority of packaged foods are of poor nutritional quality on the basis of specific nutrients (e.g., calories, sodium, and fat) or based on nutrient profiling methods, which provide an evaluation of the overall “healthfulness” of food products. All of our research on the food supply is based on our unique databases of branded food and beverage products and restaurant foods systematically collected since 2010.
UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO FOOD & BEVERAGE DATABASES
1. Food Label Information Program (FLIP)
To answer the types of research questions described above, the L’Abbé Lab has developed a database of packaged foods that is updated every 2-3 years for monitoring and testing hypotheses related to the Canadian food supply. This work is done using a systematic and comprehensive approach for an industry-wide perspective of the major national and private label brands of foods available in Canada. The most recent phase, FLIP 2013, contains information on more than 15,300 products from the four largest national retailers by sales, representing approximately 75% of the Canadian food retail market share. An additional collection will commence in Spring 2017. Some of the studies we have done using FLIP include:
- Examination of food industry progress in reducing the sodium content of packaged foods in Canada: 2010 to 2013.
- Are Foods with Fat-Related Claims Useful for Weight Management?
- Front-of-pack symbols are not a reliable indicator of products with healthier nutrient profiles.
- Trends in trans fatty acids in the Canadian food supply: an updated analysis.
- Nutrition marketing on processed food packages in Canada: 2010 Food Label Information Program.
Menu-FLIP is a database containing nutrition information for approximately 9,000 products from fast food and sit-down restaurant chains with more than 20 outlets nationwide. Previous Menu-FLIP data collections have occurred in 2010, 2013 and 2016. One additional Menu-FLIP data collection is being supported by Public Health Ontario, and will take place in January-March 2017. Learn about our restaurant research here.