Nothing is quite as it seems in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Health Canada has adopted a similar stance with “whole” wheat. In a decision that was five years in the making, the agency charged with looking after the health of Canadians has decided to allow industry to continue calling products “whole wheat” even if they are not.
Here’s how it works. The germ of a wheat berry carries the bulk of its nutritional value. Unfortunately, it also carries life. Along with life comes the certainty of eventual death. So in 1964, Canada’s food regulators gave industry permission to remove 70% of the germ and still call the resulting product “whole wheat.” While such a move lessened the nutritional value, it also increased shelf life.
Industry was happy. Consumers were confused. So in 2007, Health Canada proposed ending the muddle and asked for comments.
Health Professionals Call for Accurate Labels
Dietitians of Canada proposed a simple solution, where “whole” would mean “whole:”
“Whole wheat” should mean “whole grain” and we therefore urge Health Canada to ensure that products labelled as whole wheat comply with the definition of whole grain.
Carol Dombrow, a consulting dietitian to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, had a similar response:
The Heart and Stroke Foundation wants clear guidelines. When a label says whole, as it does in whole wheat, then 100% of all the components, not just 30% of the germ, should be present. If the information is not what we thought, how are we to educate Canadians?
Industry Begs to Differ
Industry’s view was different. Take out most of the wheat berry’s germ, add in more stable, processed ingredients to increase shelf life, and call it “whole wheat” if the nutritional value is substantially the same. In other words, continue the same confusion that led to the 2007 decision to consider new labeling.
In 2007, the National Post interviewed Paul Hetherington of the Baking Association of Canada on the issue:
Mr. Hetheringon stated that whole wheat products serve as “a transitional category for consumers moving from white to whole wheat and potentially whole grains.” In addition, he said many consumers view whole grains as unappealing due to taste and texture and that whole wheat provides that important next step for consumers wishing greater nutritional benefit without the taste and texture associated with whole grain products.
The Envelope, Please
Fast forward five years, during which Health Canada was theoretically developing new guidelines. Now consumers know the winner is…industry, once again.
Health Canada has completely dropped the ball, assuring industry they need not come up with new wording or, even more awful to contemplate, actually add the whole germ of the wheat berry into “whole wheat” products. They can keep on fooling the public with labels that imply more nutrition than their products deliver.
As for Canadian consumers, they can continue to wander in Wonderland. Research has linked the consumption of whole grains with outcomes Health Canada theoretically supports: lowered risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Dietitians routinely counsel clients to eat more whole grains. But health-conscious consumers will still have to try to remember that “whole wheat” on Canadian labels does not mean “whole grain.”
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