Has Canada been cowed by the dairy lobby?Dairy's decreasing role in Canada's food guide
By Nicole Babb and Meghan Newman
In Canada, milk has been as much a cultural norm as hockey. For decades, the drink has been marketed as an elixir of well-being here in Canada. Young and growing? Milk. Active and athletic? Milk. Aging and fragile? Milk.
That reign may be coming to an end as a result of the new Canada’s Food Guide, being released in 2019. The snapshot of the new guide released in January has done away with the familiar four food groups and instead categorizes foods according to their nutrient content. Dairy is now included in the “protein foods” category. Although dairy does provide some essential nutrients, it is not a health panacea—some nutritionists worry about the high fat and sodium content in certain dairy products such as cheese.
So if the evidence of dairy’s health value is mixed, why did it spend so many years as its own food group? Largely because the dairy industry and lobby groups have been influential in encouraging food policy makers to continue promoting dairy as a healthy food, said Dr. Walter Willett, a Harvard nutrition expert. Willett is among the group of nutritionists who hope future food guides will be free of industry influence.
“My concern about the dairy industry has been that they promote cheese kind of in the same breath [as milk]. And that’s problematic,” he said. Cheese, Jeffery added, “has a lot of saturated fat and sodium. That’s where [the dairy industry] kind of diverges sharply from the science.”
“The health risks of consuming too much saturated fat and too much sodium in particular are very well documented,” Jeffery said.
These concerns are reflected in the types of milk products recommended by Health Canada:
“While the new Canada’s Food Guide puts an emphasis on plant-based foods, it continues to encourage Canadians to choose nutritious foods, such as lower-fat milk, lower-fat yogurt, and cheeses lower in fat and sodium, as part of the protein foods grouping,” wrote Health Canada’s Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion in an email statement.
The arguments for dairy
For decades dairy was one of the four food groups on Canada’s Food Guide. Dairy is naturally high in calcium and in Canada milk is fortified with vitamin D, making it a good source of two key nutrients. Milk products are not the only way people can get these nutrients, but they are an efficient option. According to Willett, the best dairy alternatives are plant-based sources of protein such as soy products and nuts.
“My understanding of the best available evidence is that there is a small health benefit of consuming low-fat milk,” said Bill Jeffery, Executive Director of the Centre for Health Science and Law. “It is a very good source of calcium.” Many other foods have far less calcium per serving, meaning people have to eat more servings in order to meet the daily recommended calcium intake, he said.
The nutritional differences between milk products and other protein sources are worth noting, said Isabelle Neiderer, Director of Nutrition and Research at Dairy Farmers of Canada, Canada’s largest dairy advocacy group. She points out that other high protein foods are not necessarily good sources of all the nutrients found in dairy products.
“Milk products are an important source of calcium and vitamin D in the diet, and these are two nutrients that are missing in the diet of most Canadians,” she added.
In addition to the well-known nutritional benefits of milk products, Neiderer said that evidence shows dairy can be beneficial in preventing disease.
“There is strong evidence that milk products are linked to better bone health…The world cancer research fund… have concluded that there is strong evidence for milk products in the prevention of colorectal cancer ,” said Neiderer. “Health Canada in their own evidence review link milk products to reduction of risk for heart diseases, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.”
This type of wholesale dairy promotion goes too far argues Jeffery. While he supports the promotion of low-fat milk, he disagrees with the dairy industry’s blanket approach to product promotion.
Dairy and Canada’s food guide
One reason dairy was prominent on Canada’s food guide for so long was a long-standing belief that since mother’s milk was healthy for children, other milk would also be healthy for children and adults, Jenkins said.
Another answer is lobby groups. In Canada people grow up watching Canadian dairy advertisements, having milk programs in their schools, and looking for the familiar blue label on milk products.
“Massive lobbying, massive marketing, and this idea within the North American nutrition community that we have to get this really high calcium intake throughout life is why dairy was prominent on previous food guides. But the evidence for that isn’t strong,” said Willett.
According to the Canadian Dairy Information Centre (CDIC), in 2018 there were 10, 593 commercial dairy farms in Canada, making the dairy industry an economic force and a sector that employs many Canadians. Dairy Farmers of Canada, the largest dairy lobby, policy, and promotion group in the country has an annual marketing budget of $80 million to promote dairy to Canadians. This budget includes advertising directly to Canadians and lobbying the government. [Photo courtesy of -JvL- via Flickr]
Challenges in nutrition research
The debates over the health value of dairy are part of a larger problem within the field of nutritional epidemiology, said Dr. Christopher Labos, cardiologist and epidemiologist at McGill University. One of the challenges with food research is that it is often done retroactively, people are mailed questionnaires about their food and eating habits in the past year. The problem with these types of studies is that they are by nature inaccurate, he said. They rely on memory and people lack the ability to accurately recall what they ate and how often. Because of this, determining the health effects of specific foods is a challenge, said Labos.
Given what is currently known about dairy, and the lack of certainty in the research, nutritionists tend to agree that, “Milk is not very bad for you or very good for you. It’s just milk,” said Labos. University of Ottawa nutrition and obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff agrees, “There is no magical nutritional benefit to dairy that can’t be found in other food items that would explain why it had its own food group for so many years,” Freedhoff said .
“Are there studies that show that dairy is good for you? Yes. Are there studies that show that dairy has a questionable impact on health? Yes. And you could pick whichever studies you like,” said Dr. David Jenkins a nutrition expert at the University of Toronto.
“There is no magical nutritional benefit to dairy that can’t be found in other food items that would explain why it had its own food group for so many years.”
The dairy industry, like all other food industries want to have its products portrayed favourably in the food guide, said Jeffery.
“The dairy industry is kind of a standout,” he said. “They are certainly very aggressive in both public and private advocacy. They interact a lot with professional associations, dieticians, and other health professionals to advance their objectives.” The industry also had a representative on the food guide advisory group for the previous iteration of the guide, he added.
While this kind of direct influence may be beneficial to dairy farmers, it is not necessarily in the best health interests of every Canadian. Consumers would be better off if they were less influenced by special interests and lobby groups, said Labos. “If we’re going to make scientific decisions they should be based on science. They should be based on a dispassionate evaluation of the evidence, not because of lobby groups or special interests of any kind,” he said.
In that case, the new food guide might be a step in the right direction. Not only does it reflect the most recent science, it also represents a heightened impartially, according to Health Canada’s Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion.
“It was important to ensure that the development of dietary guidance was free from conflict of interest. This is why reports commissioned by industry or an organization with a business interest were excluded from our evidence review,” said Health Canada’s Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion in an email statement. The spokesperson added that Health Canada officials responsible for drafting the food guide also did not meet with industry representatives to discuss the new guide.
Freedhoff was pleasantly surprised to see that the dairy industry had less of an impact on the new food guide. He said that the dairy industry has had strong influence for so many years. “It’s nice to see that it’s finally changed.”