While Health Canada took only a cautious first step, its recent decision to allow health claims on foods that contain plant sterols intended to lower blood cholesterol levels could create a new market for farmers.
Its refusal until recently to accept health claims worked to the disadvantage of growers and food companies, said Derek Nighbor, senior vice-president of public and regulatory affairs with Food and Consumer Products of Canada, a Toronto-based national organization for makers of foods and consumer goods.
“Bringing Canada’s food system at par with other leading developed nations is a win-win situation for Canadians, for government, and for the Canadian agri-food industry,” he said.
“Canadians will no longer miss out on innovative, healthy foods and beverages that line grocery shelves across Europe, the U. S., Australia, New Zealand and other countries.”
Unilever Canada was the first company to take advantage of the decision by launching its Becel pro. activ calorie-reduced margarine.
Food lawyer Ronald Doering, a former president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said in an interview that Health Canada’s decision was an important step.
“Canada has finally recognized the relationship between the consumption of plant sterol-enriched foods and cholesterol lowering, something already recognized in 37 other countries.
“If this decision on phytosterols indicates a new and more flexible interpretation of the act, in my opinion it is the most significant reform of Canadian food law in recent years,” he added.
Nighbor noted a study by the George Morris Centre which found Canada’s food regulatory system “lags far behind that of other leading nations” and “the outdated system has far-reaching, negative economic impacts across the industry, from primary producers and manufacturers to retailers.”
Plant sterols occur naturally, in small amounts, in nuts, vegetable oils, whole grains and fruits and vegetables, and seem to block absorption of cholesterol by the body.
Before long, it’s expected, a variety of foods will likely include plant sterols, in addition to products fortified with omega-3 fatty acids, probiotic cultures or vitamin D and calcium.