Hold the milk, says new Canada’s Food Guide

Dairy industry doesn’t take kindly to the change in tone, while beef farmers less alarmed at emphasis on plant-based protein

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The Canadian government released its new, revised food guide this week, upending years of convention in the process. In a marked departure from the last update in 2007, the new Canada’s Food Guide does away with the decades-old four food group rainbow and measured servings. Instead the new guide emphasizes the relative proportions of food types that should be consumed, while also encouraging plant-based proteins over typical meat sources.

Noticeably absent from the guide, however, is dairy, to the chagrin of the industry. Dairy organizations took umbrage with the recommendations, insisting milk and dairy was an important part of a healthy diet.

“We’re actually very concerned, a bit disappointed about it,” said Murray Sherk, chair of the Dairy Farmers of Ontario and a Fergus-based dairy farmer. “Because it makes a lot of recommendations that we feel are not entirely based in science. Certainly it encourages plant-based consumption of plant-based proteins rather than animal-based proteins, which is fine.”

However, gone is the traditional tall glass of milk to wash down those meals. Instead, front and center in the new guide is a suggestion quite at odds with the conventional wisdom: “Make water your drink of choice,” says the new document. If water isn’t your cup of tea, the guide goes on to say, “white milk (unsweetened lower fat milk)” can serve as a healthy alternative.

“But there really isn’t evidence to make these recommendations,” argues Sherk. “There’s a lot science in recent years that say that higher fats are good for you, and certainly dairy [it’s] one of the most nutritionally rich natural foods. It sort of downplays the importance of dairy, and we’re disappointed because of that.”

The Dairy Farmers of Canada similarly went to Twitter to point out the years of scientific research on the value of a diet balanced with dairy consumption.

“While the food guide has changed, milk products continue to play a valuable role in helping Canadians make healthy eating decisions on a daily basis,” read the DFC’s official Twitter account.

The dairy organizations argue that Health Canada, which produced the guide, was ignoring the benefits of milk and dairy in reducing rates of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

“We think it also downplays the ease at which you can get good nutrition by consuming dairy,” said Sherk, which the industry lists as calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin D, and potassium.

Sherk couldn’t speculate how the new guide would affect average consumers and families at the supermarket, but suggested the larger affect would be on institutions that follow the guide and base their meals according to the government recommendations.

While dairy saw its position slip in the new food guide, meat still got a seat at the table (or rather, a side of the plate). Meat products no longer have the same prominence in the past, however, sharing a single “protein” category with other sources of the macronutrient, including nuts and seeds, low-fat dairy, beans and soy and tofu-based products.

Joe Hill, president of the Beef Farmers of Ontario, was more approving of the guide, noting its balanced approach to the various sources of protein.

“They still included beef and red meat as part of a balanced diet, which I think is encouraging,” said Hill. “No, it doesn’t worry me. I think people will make choices based on their own preference. And I think as a food guide, to sort of show there are a lot of options available I think is a positive thing.”

The organization was quick to point out that though plant-based proteins had their place, there was no easy substitution for conventional meats.

“While Canada’s Food Guide does recommend the incorporation of plant-based proteins into the diets of Canadians, it is important to share that not all proteins are created equal,” said the BFO in a media statement.

“A small amount of lean beef can provide high-quality, readily available protein and many other nutrients with relatively low calories. To get an equal amount of protein from plant sources could mean consuming higher volumes and more calories. In fact, meats and plant-based foods are better together – the nutrient value of both foods increases when consumed as part of a meal.”

Besides revising the types of food recommended, the new food guide takes a simpler approach to food portions. Rather than measuring food by serving, the document recommends proportions instead – recommending half your intake be devoted to fruit and vegetables, a quarter to proteins, and the remaining quarter going to whole grains.

To illustrate the point, pictured on the front of the guide is a plate of food with the food types neatly divide into three parts. Occupying one half of the plate are the vegetables and colourful fruits; on the other half of the plate, a quarter is reserved for proteins, and the other quarter is given to whole grain foods. A cup of water besides the plate completes the ensemble.

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