New Changes to Canada’s Food Guide and the Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

The federal government is preparing to unveil its long-awaited update to Canada’s Food Guide, the first such overhaul in ten years. The new guide is expected to place greater emphasis on plant-based foods, not only for their health benefits, but also for the sake of environmental sustainability. Most notable is the downgrading of animal products such as red meat, and the removal of milk and dairy products as a separate category which the guidelines suggest must be limited due to their high fat, sugar and/or salt content.

The current guide has been criticized by researchers and dietitians alike on a number of fronts:

  • The inclusion of dairy products as a distinct food group;
  • Counting juices as servings of fruits and vegetables;
  • The reliance on serving sizes that can be difficult for people to interpret and measure;
  • Its failure to reflect Canada’s diverse cultural landscape.

During the process of re-drafting the Food Guide, industry-commissioned reports were excluded for consideration. Instead, a series of public consultations were organized across the country and Canadians were encouraged to provide feedback on the draft guidelines.

A plant-based diet places greater emphasis on plant sources such as vegetables and fruit, whole grains, nuts and legumes. This being said, limited amounts of lean meats and low-fat dairy products are still recommended. Numerous studies have linked plant-based diets to decreased risks of cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and a reduction in LDL cholesterol. Why? A diet rich in plant foods is naturally low in saturated fat, high in fibre and low in sodium and added sugar.

Not only are plant-based foods a key determinant to human health, they also contribute to biodiversity conservation and environmental sustainability. The new guidelines acknowledge that our current food system places stress on the environment, particularly the consumption of meats and animal by-products. The draft states, “Diets higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods are associated with a lesser environmental impact.”

A shift towards more plant-based foods is achievable and here’s how:

  • Begin by eating more plant-based meals you already eat.
  • Change one meal at a time or one ingredient at a time.
  • Initiate a 50/50 switch and replace some of the meats with legumes – for example, only add half the amount of beef you normally would to a recipe and top up with lentils.
  • Eliminate animal-foods you don’t eat often.
  • Choose whole grains over white varieties – e.g. brown rice or spelt pasta.
  • Replace foods that contain mostly saturated fat (e.g. ice cream, high fat cheeses and butter) with foods that contain mostly unsaturated fat (e.g. nuts, seeds, and avocado).
  • Consume a variety of differently coloured vegetables and fruits, and buy season-specific produce.
  • Stock your kitchen with plant-based foods you want to eat.
  • Don’t forget, canned and frozen vegetables are nutritious too, but be sure to choose options that are low in sodium and sugar.


How to cook vegetables and maximize nutritional value

There is some truth to the old adage, “Eat your vegetables.” A diet rich in vegetables has been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, hypertension and certain types of cancer. It is also true that cooking methods alter the nutrient composition of vegetables. And, while several studies have indicated cooking can degrade some nutrients, it can increase the availability of others.

As a general rule, it is ideal to keep cooking temperature, time and the amount of liquid to a minimum. Steaming is considered the best way to cook most vegetables, especially broccoli. Steaming is a gentler way to cook because the vegetables do not come in direct contact with the cooking water.

When on a time-crunch, microwave. That is because microwaving uses less heat, little to no water, and shorter cooking times, thus, preserving nutrients such as vitamin C.

Sautée, do not fry. Sautéing in a little cooking oil, such as extra-virgin olive oil, is an ideal way to prepare many vegetables. This method will enhance flavour, and the addition of olive oil appears to increase the absorption of phytochemicals like phenols and carotenes.

Roasting and baking is another healthy way to prepare vegetables. Adding fats such as olive oil is a good idea, since many of the nutrients in vegetables are fat soluble, and the body absorbs them better in the presence of fat. Studies indicate that cutting and heating tomatoes, with the skin and seeds still intact, opens up cell walls and allows greater access to the antioxidant lycopene. Adding some fat, such as olive oil, makes the nutrient more bioavailable.

Griddling is great. Griddling involves the use of a pan with raised edges and is typically prepared in the oven or on the stove. Vegetables such as green beans, broccoli, and asparagus, cooked with a drizzle of olive oil, can increase flavour and be quite healthy.

Boiling is the least favoured cooking method. Studies have shown the process leaches water soluble vitamins like vitamin C and B vitamins into the water, which is fine if the cooking water is to be consumed. Carrots are the exception. Boiling and steaming increase the levels of beta carotene which converts to vitamin A.

Other Notables:

Wash on demand. Wait to wash vegetables until just before use. This will safeguard water-soluble vitamins and minerals. Also, soaking vegetables can remove key nutrients such as vitamin C.

Depends on how you slice, dice and cut it. Cooking vegetables whole preserves water soluble vitamins and nutrients. When this is not possible, cut vegetables into large, uniform pieces that will cook evenly.

The final choice words; regardless of the cooking or preparation method, “Eat your vegetables.”


Is it still good? The shelf life of a ‘best before’ date on food

The common food dilemma of following ‘best before’ dates as ‘expiry’ dates likely contributes to 1.3 billion tons per year of waste. This represents more than 30 percent of the food produced and an estimated cost of $34 billion dollars in North America.

In most instances, best before dates have to do with food quality – freshness, texture, taste and colour – not safety. As long as the package is unopened, has been stored under proper conditions and for canned goods, the can is not bulging, food can be eaten past the ‘best before’ date.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) lists requirements for date labelling on pre-packaged food. ‘Best before’ dates are required on all food products that keep fresh for less than 90 days, such as milk, along with required storage conditions, like ‘keep refrigerated’. They are not required on food products with a shelf life more than 90 days such as canned tomatoes and dry pasta.

There are no government regulations indicating what the dates should be or how they should be determined. “The manufacturer determines the date on the package based on the worst-case scenario,” says Keith Warriner, professor in the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph. Warriner asked one company how it addressed the undertaking. He was told a product would be left at room temperature and assessed daily. When they thought the quality was unacceptable, they set a best before date. Warriner adds that at times, the best before date is chosen to fit the needs of the retailer without any formal shelf-life studies.

As most best before dates are estimates, there are a few exceptions. For deli meats, hot dogs and soft cheeses, best before dates are based on the length of time it takes the pathogen Listeria monocytogenes to grow. Some jarred ready-to-eat foods have a shelf life of 42 days, depending on the extent of heat treatment, says Warriner. Low acid foods such as soups and sous vide-type products do not receive sterilization treatment and are in danger of developing Clostridium botulinum or botulism. Warriner advises adhering to the best before date when it comes to these products even though they may look and taste fine. Jarred products such as pickles and salsa are low botulism risk. Unlike most bacteria, Listeria and botulism spores can multiply and spread in the refrigerator.

The following are refrigerated (4 degrees C/40 degrees F) products in which the shelf life is based on food safety.

Low-acid vegetable or fruit juices (pH of 4.6 or greater): 3 weeks

Pasteurized jarred soups: 7 days

Non-dried deli meats: 5-7 days

Sous vide (“under vacuum”) red meat, poultry, fish: 10 days maximum

‘Expiry’ dates are under a different classification. They are required on only a few items such as meal replacements, nutritional supplements and infant formulas. These products should not be consumed after the expiration date because the nutrient content stated on the label may have degraded. They should be discarded.

Fresh food packaged at the store must have a ‘packaged on’ plus a ‘best before’ date. This applies to foods like vegetables, cut-up fruit, meats, bread, muffins and cakes baked on site.