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New report says improved food literacy key to a healthier life

Conference Board of Canada says too many people can’t understand nutrition labels, 
make a meal in their kitchen, or stick to a food budget to reduce waste

Improved food literacy would improve the health of Canadian adults and children, says a new report from the Conference Board of Canada.

The number of books, television programs and websites dedicated to food — not to mention diets — continue to multiply, but our understanding of food isn’t necessarily getting better, says the 46-page report.

“It is unclear whether households’ attitudes, skills and knowledge about food — their food literacy — have developed along with that interest. In reality, Canadians’ food literacy may not be as high as it could and should be.”

Being able to interpret nutrition labelling on foods is one area of concern. Canadians, especially those lacking numeracy skills, struggle with them despite efforts to raise awareness about Nutrition Facts tables, says the report, entitled a.

The low percentage of children and adolescents regularly participating in family meal preparation is another concern and may be leading to more “deskilled” generations to come.

Canadians also waste a lot of food, and the report suggests the root of the problem may be that relatively few households have and follow a food budget.

“Many households could improve their planning and purchasing habits,” it says.

Food safety is another area of concern. While individuals generally know how to store, handle and prepare food, the report says, “they do not always put that knowledge to use” and “tend to mistakenly believe that their risk of exposure to food-related hazards in the home is minimal.”

As well, immigrants and some Aboriginal peoples face additional barriers to food literacy, it says.

Lack of food skills in youth also persists into adulthood, increasing the risk of ill health for the next generation, it says.

“Many of the most common chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart disease and stroke), cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, and others (such as oral diseases, and bone and joint disorders) — are linked to unhealthy diets aand subsequent overweight and obesity rates,” the report notes.

The issue also spills into other areas.

“For example, whether new production and processing technologies that promise improvements to safety, yields, and/or environmental performance will be permitted for use, or are actually put into use, depends to some extent on whether households understand and have confidence in those technologies.”

There’s not a lot of data on Canadians’ food literacy, but numerous studies elsewhere have found health levels improve when people have a better understanding of nutrition and food preparation. A Health Canada review of international cooking skills literature has also concluded “that there is an association between food literacy and dietary quality, frequency of family meals and involvement in food preparation activities among adolescents and young adults.”

The report makes a series of recommendations, including making nutritional information more effective and accessible for household use; tailoring food literacy programs to high-risk populations and community needs fostering hands-on parental involvement in food literacy programming; creating guiding principles for advertising to children; and incorporating food literacy into school curricula.

The report stresses that nutrition education for children is especially important as a positive influence on children’s food-related knowledge and skills, eating and physical activity behaviour, and health status.

The latter is something Canadian home economists have long advocated. The Ontario Home Economics Association recently called for mandatory home economics education in Ontario schools. A Manitoba assessment of foods and nutrition studies in schools also concluded updating the home economics curriculum could significantly improve children and youth’s skills and understanding of their food system.

Improving food literacy has also been a key theme in other policy proposals attempting to map out a long-term national food strategy.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture says government should ensure every Canadian child by age 16 should know how to plan and prepare at least six nutritious meals. A 2009 report from the Canadian Agri-Food Policy calls for a ‘whole of society’ approach that puts an informed consumer at the centre of a healthier food system.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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