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My Food Guide, Their Food Guide: diversity and personalization in Canada’s national dietary guidelines

  • Elyse Amend

Article body

Introduction

Health Canada, the federal department responsible for policymaking on public health issues and communicating health promotion and disease prevention to Canadians, is currently in the process of revising its decade-old food guide, with major changes expected to the national dietary guidelines within the next two years. In summer 2017, Health Canada released three guiding principles[1] and a number of additional considerations that will drive its updated dietary guidance, including recognition of Canada’s cultural diversity. Specifically, Health Canada indicates that “[c]ombining nutritious foods in ways that reflect cultural preferences and food traditions can support healthy eating.”[2]

Cultural diversity is by no means a new theme in state-mandated Canadian nutritional guidance. This country’s most current guide, Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide, released in 2007, seeks to provide general guidance on healthy eating for all people across Canada — regardless of location, gender, age, socio-economic reality and cultural background. To be sure, this is no enviable task, and Health Canada and its food guide have received much criticism for lacking in exactly this department.[3]

Critics suggest the food guide largely brackets difference and diversity in its promotion of a one-size-fits-all model for healthy eating, and can lead to the marginalization of diets and food practices that do not conform to its framework. For example, in their study of how migration to Canada affects the perceptions of food and health among newly arrived mothers, Anderson, Mah and Sellen found many participants were led to believe they did not know how to properly feed their children after they were exposed to the information in Canada’s Food Guide, despite the fact they also reported regularly preparing fresh, whole foods for their families.[4] Additionally, many of the study’s participants noted they started to view their usual food practices as “unhealthy” because the foods they traditionally ate and fed to their children were not present in the guide. Anderson, Mah and Sellen attribute this to processes of acculturation influenced by newcomers’ exposure to nutrition programs and guidelines that can lead many to devalue their traditional knowledge — or completely disregard it as “knowledge” — in favour of other official sources like Canada’s Food Guide.[5]

To mitigate the limitations of the main version of Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide, the 2007 revision also included the development of supplementary tools to help address culinary diversity, individual food preferences, and to acknowledge traditional foods and food practices of Canada’s Indigenous populations.[6] One such resource is the interactive My Food Guide, a complementary web-based tool that allows users to customize Canada’s Food Guide to their specific dietary preferences, and includes a host of food examples and physical activities not addressed in the general guide.[7]

Over the past decade, there has been much critique of Canada’s Food Guide and the ways in which it limits the definition of a “healthy diet” to the foods depicted in its pages, thereby marginalizing culturally and nutritionally diverse people whose food practices and preferences are not represented. However, little attention has been paid specifically to the online My Food Guide tool part of Health Canada’s nutrition communication efforts, which the department developed in part to address the lack of cultural diversity identified in Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide.

This analysis thus takes a closer look at the My Food Guide web tool and the processes of “personalization” its users encounter as they click through the online resource’s pages. It also draws on documentation related to the consultations surrounding My Food Guide’s development obtained through Access to Information (ATI) requests filed with Heath Canada between June 2015 and October 2016, and transcripts from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health between June 2006 and February 2007 available through Hansard. It begins with a consideration of how the idea of addressing difference through personalization drove Health Canada to produce supplementary tools like the online My Food Guide in order to “fix” the lack of diversity the department recognized in Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide.

It then turns attention to the complexities involved in making generalized dietary advice multicultural in Canada, and highlights some of the main issues that emerged in the documentation related to the Health Canada consultations and focus groups surrounding My Food Guide, and the food guide’s “multicultural approach” in general. As this research indicates, Health Canada’s efforts to include more food choices through an online tool and offer simple linguistic translations of its food guide may not be enough to meaningfully address cultural diversity, and instead run the risk of reinforcing normative dietary guidance that brackets difference.

Today, the Canadian Census lists over 250 ethnic origins represented in the Canadian population.[8] As the country’s cultural diversity continues to evolve, Health Canada has reiterated its commitment to representing the “rich and diverse” cultural makeup in Canada, but it remains unclear how the department will address this in its forthcoming revised food guide materials.[9] Thus, in addition to providing critical insight into how the My Food Guide website attempts to address cultural and dietary difference and the problems that arise, this article concludes by raising a number of questions to keep in mind as Health Canada prepares to release its revised dietary guidance and develops what it has referred to as “a new suite of Canada’s Food Guide resources.”[10] This article calls on researchers and policymakers to consider how future iterations of Canada’s Food Guide might address cultural diversity in more beneficial ways that step outside of the food guide’s normative framework, and go beyond linguistic translation and disjointed inclusions of so-called “culturally relevant” food examples.

My Food Guide: personalization, food preference, and cultural diversity

Health Canada took what it calls a “multicultural approach” during the revision that led up to 2007’s Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide.[11] During online consultations on the revised guide in 2005 and 2006, survey respondents largely reacted positively to this proposed multicultural approach, noting that applying it would not only be “inclusive,” but also would reflect the fact “ethnic food consumption is common among Canadians,” and that it could help “‘average’ Canadians discover new foods.”[12] However, focus group testing on a draft version of the revised food guide in 2006 indicated some participants believed Health Canada was not doing enough to support cultural communities at the time[13]:

While there was a sense that some attempt had been made to address ethnic foods, there was a sense that the draft food guide needed to address more ethnic dishes, recipes and eating habits and not just give examples of specific types of individual foods like hummus, bok choy or naan.[14]

Between June 2006 and February 2007, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health undertook special meetings focused on addressing childhood obesity in Canada, during which the food guide was raised on a number of occasions. Health Canada officials engaged in the development of Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide emphasized their commitment to reflecting Canada’s multicultural population, despite the complexities involved in doing so. At the October 24, 2006 committee hearing, Mary Bush, the head of nutrition policy at Health Canada at the time, justifiably noted that producing one document meant help all Canadians eat nutritiously and lead healthy lifestyles, regardless of their background and current reality, is no easy task. She noted that creating many different food guides to address Canada’s diverse ethnic and cultural groups was both impractical and unrealistic, due to the amount of data this would entail, and the sheer number of guides that would need to be produced. Thus, developing one standardized “Canadian” food pattern that others could adapt to was considered the best option. Bush noted:

So this is an imperfect solution when you come out with a food guide and you evolve it for a particular cultural group, because you're taking a food pattern developed for Canadians that's based on the food supply, what Canadians eat, their nutrient needs, and chronic disease prevention. You're asking those people who maybe have come from Thailand, who have a different pattern of eating, to face a pattern that was developed for the Canadian moment (…) The Canadian food guide will be a food guide that is rooted in Canadian foods, in the traditional pattern that we have data on, because that's the only thing we can use. If we don't have data on what people are eating, we can't develop a de novo pattern.[15]

During that same meeting, Bush also underscored that having an online tool to personalize the food guide for individuals could help mitigate these issues:

However, part of our movement into a web-based platform was to enable us to have graphics that were much more multicultural in terms of food. A bit of it was that the adaptation that allows you to create a My Food Guide program allows you to pull culturally relevant foods into the various food groups.[16]

While the name of Health Canada’s digital counterpart to Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide, “My Food Guide,” promises personalization, its options for customization are actually quite limited: the first step in obtaining your own copy involves entering your gender and age range to determine how many standardized Food Guide Servings you should consume from each of the four food groups. Following this step, My Food Guide users are asked to select between one to six choices of preferred foods from each of Canada’s Food Guide’s four food groups–from 161 food choices in total–and up to six physical activities. It is important to note that each food group on My Food Guide contains options reflected in the main version of Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide[17] — including commonplace items like broccoli, apples, oranges, chicken, breakfast cereals and milk — along with many additional options—such as chayote, edamame, okra, congee, couscous, bannock, and paneer.[18]

The purpose of My Food Guide, according to Health Canada, is to enable individuals to reflect their own food choices and incorporate them in a healthy diet based on the generalized nutrition recommendations in Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide. However, outside of the arguably superficial personalization element that allows you to tailor the food guide based on age and gender, the only major difference between the main Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide and the online My Food Guide is the amount and assortment of foods and physical activities represented.

Contrast this with, for example, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) SuperTracker tool.[19] The interactive website is a nutrition outreach effort connected to the USDA’s dietary guidelines. It offers its users the option to create personalized nutrition and physical activity plans, nutritional information on more than 8,000 foods, the possibility to set personal goals, connect with virtual coaches, and interact with other users through SuperTracker groups. Engagement with My Food Guide beyond the personalization process outlined above, on the other hand, is limited to what the individual user decides to do with his or her one-paged print out.

As for the 161 food items available to choose from on the My Food Guide website, while reports from consultation sessions indicate some intermediaries and members of the public made suggestions about different food examples that should be included to address cultural and immigrant groups in Canada, it is unclear what data, statistics, or thought processes were involved in compiling the food groups lists on My Food Guide.[20] One point that does stand out is that many of the additions made to these lists, as compared to the food examples depicted in the main food guide, are items that might be considered “uncommon,” “specialized,” or “ethnic.”

Offering so-called “personalization” of dietary advice through increasing the selection of food items available on My Food Guide seems to be one example of Health Canada working to fulfill its stated commitment to cultural diversity. However, with a list of only 161 food items to select from across its four food groups, the My Food Guide web tool does not only offer a limited depiction of dietary diversity in Canada, but also an arbitrary one.

Furthermore, a 2008 Health Canada focus group research report on My Food Guide noted a number of other barriers the website presented, including its reliance on food groups, which the report noted is a concept many immigrants are not familiar with.[21] The report also underscored the fact that simply including more “culturally relevant” food choices through an online-only tool would not effectively engage many individuals in diverse communities due to limitations in internet access, which greatly varies depending on location and socio-economic status.[22]

Their Food Guide: translation and assimilation

Currently, the general Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide brochure is available in 12 different languages: in addition to English and French, users can download or order a printed copy of the food guide in Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Korean, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Tamil, and Urdu. Health Canada’s website notes these translated versions can help people “learn more about Canada’s Food Guide” and can help individuals and their families “know how much food you need, what types of foods are better for you, and the importance of physical activity in your day.”[23] The translated versions of Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide do not offer different guidelines that take cultural diversity into account; while the language may change, the visual elements, the suggested food items and servings, and the overall healthy eating framework stay the same. This is an important issue, especially as research has shown different people will understand what “healthy eating” means in diverse ways based on cultural and individual background, something that simple linguistic translation of dietary advice does not account for.[24] As Desjardins, Cooke and Charron note: “Instead of adapting the content, whether, linguistic or visual, for the intended audience (e.g. Punjab, Chinese, or Russian), the translation imposes a ‘Canadianised’ reading of food and nutrition…”[25]

Another issue that arises in linguistic translations of the food guide is that a number of the concepts it relies on do not have direct translations in some languages. For example, Abramovitch et al., found Canada’s Food Guide’s use of the term “serving” was a difficult concept for many people to understand, especially for those from ethnically diverse backgrounds who often eat foods other than those represented in the guide. In addition to these linguistic factors, the study determined inaccurate estimation of serving size was often related to differences in the foods habitually consumed by members of these groups and not specifically addressed by the food guide.[26]

Others have indicated linguistic translation of the food guide does little to offer broader perspectives on nutrition and diet, and continues to bolster a quantitative, Western biomedical discourse of food and eating as the “correct” or “only” approach.[27] Anderson, Mah and Sellen note many new immigrants to Canada often interpret the food guide and its translations to a very literal degree, and assume foods not pictured in it — including many they habitually consume — are “unhealthy” due to omission.[28]

Such issues were not ignored during focus group research with food guide intermediaries who promote healthy eating among ethnocultural communities across Canada following the release of Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide and its supplementary materials in 2007.[29] While many participants reacted positively to the fact the guide is available in numerous languages, they also noted simple translations and additional food examples do not make it a tool that effectively addresses the challenges people part of different cultural and linguistic communities face.[30] Outside of linguistic factors, other barriers to healthy eating focus group participants raised were:

  • limited availability of traditional foods;

  • lack of familiarity with potential substitutes for traditional products;

  • differences in cooking methods and use of appliances;

  • cultural shifts in food shopping and unfamiliarity with the variety and packaging of foods available;

  • lack of time to shop and cook often due to the need for women to work outside of the home once in Canada and their traditional role in preparing meals;

  • limited financial means;

  • unfamiliarity with the concept of a lunch box for children;

  • general unfamiliarity with the concept of a food guide and not being used to measure food intake;

  • conflicts generated by multi-generational households;

  • nutrition being lower in priority to finding home and employment.[31]

The focus group research report also noted a number of traditional, cultural, and religious factors that influence people’s diets and are not accounted for through simple translation of the main food guide or simply including more food items to choose from, such as following a Halal diet, fasting during Ramadan or Lent, ethno-cultural food classification systems, and the cultural importance of preparing and eating food in a social setting.[32]

Health Canada officials have said that “evolv[ing] the food guide to make it available in various languages” is an effective way of making the information more accessible to diverse groups.[33] However, while one could assume such translations might help newcomers adapt their food preferences and practices to Canadian standards, Desjardins, Cooke, and Charron point out “this would rest upon the shaky notion that immigrants and newcomers are willing to give up traditional culinary practices or familiar food habits.”[34]

Peculiarly, unlike the main food guide, which is available in a total of 12 languages, the My Food Guide web tool, which includes a more diverse — albeit still limited — selection is only available in English and French. Despite promises that as of “Fall 2007 users will have the option of printing copies of the ‘My Food Guide’ in a number of different languages,”[35] this is still not the case a decade later. It is difficult to determine why Health Canada’s plans to translate My Food Guide have not been followed through. Additionally, it is unclear whether having linguistic translations applied to My Food Guide would actually engage people from diverse backgrounds in any meaningful way. Regardless, this undoubtedly limits My Food Guide’s accessibility to many members of the culturally diverse communities Health Canada’s addition of “multicultural” and “culturally relevant” foods is meant to serve.

Conclusion

Health Canada promotes its food guide and tools like the My Food Guide website as reflecting Canada’s cultural and culinary diversity. However, as this article has attempted to show, addressing diversity in dietary guidelines is not as simple as offering linguistic translations and a handful of supplementary “culturally relevant” food examples.

Deficiencies in addressing diversity have affected Canadian state-mandated nutrition guidance from the start: the original Official Food Rules — Canada’s first set of state-mandate dietary guidelines released in 1942 — did not so much address actual diets and the realities people in Canada faced, but, as Ian Mosby observes, promoted an “Anglo-European cultural ideal” that had “little application to a number of Canadian regions—particularly the North” and “also pathologized the culinary traditions of ethnic groups with cuisines less centered on dairy products such as milk, cheese, and butter.”[36]

While it might be too much to say the food guide and its supplemental materials, like My Food Guide, are actively working at constituting cultural difference — separating the “Canadian” from the “not sufficiently Canadian” — it also cannot be said the food guide is actually serving cultural communities by including a few extra “culturally relevant” items on a supplementary online tool only available in English and French. Furthermore, instead of actually recognizing the cultural significance and culinary traditions of different foods, the food guide essentially works to avoid dealing with diversity by counseling people to adhere to its reductive, one-size-fits all healthy eating model that values food groups and serving sizes over culinary tradition, food meanings, and the opportunities that can be created through constructive encounters with Otherness through food.[37] This raises serious questions about the effects the food guide can have on members of diverse communities, when recognition of difference and the importance of culture is promised, but are instead managed and bracketed through the very tools of recognition that makes such assurances.

With Canada’s Food Guide officially under revision, there seem to be opportunities opening up to meaningfully change the way state-mandated public health campaigns like the food guide communicate nutrition and health, and consider dietary diversity. Information released about the progress of this revision process to date indicates Health Canada will address or incorporate cultural diversity in its revised food guide materials in some way. It is currently unclear, however, how they plan to do this, and whether forthcoming food guide material will move beyond the ways in which linguistic translations and online tools like My Food Guide have only superficially dealt with difference.

That said, researchers and policymakers should consider how future Canadian dietary guidelines and other public health programs aimed at increasing nutritional health might address some of the issues participants raised during the food guide consultation processes that were not discernibly included in Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide or the My Food Guide web tool. We should ask, what might a food guide that seeks to address serious socio-economic, food availability, and food skills and literacy issues many Canadians and newcomers to this country face in deciding what to eat on a daily basis? How might future nutrition policies and communication efforts help diverse individuals navigate new or unfamiliar food environments, adapt traditional recipes to new ingredients and cooking methods, and find the time and financial means to devote to cooking meals and eating in social settings, all of which were concerns raised during the last food guide consultations and evaluations.[38]

While it is promising to see Health Canada list cultural diversity as a consideration that will drive its revised food guide, we should not forget its “multicultural approach” to the last revision in 2007 resulted in only a cursory acknowledgement of diversity and difference. We can do more in this area. Other countries, like Brazil, have reformed their national dietary guidelines to include statements to encourage people to seek out “natural or minimally processed foods” that are “delicious, culturally appropriate, and supportive of socially and environmentally sustainable food systems,” to eat with others when possible, and to develop and share cooking skills.[39] In the United States, the USDA’s ChooseMyPlate website provides 10 tips to “wisely celebrate healthier foods and customs,” and encourages people to learn about different traditional and regional ingredients, to learn from and cook with others, to “delight in cultural gatherings,” and to pass on traditional food skills, customs, and stories to younger generations.[40]

Health Canada presents its food guide as scientific and evidence-based, thus painting it as objective and value-free.[41] This characterization can work to shield the document from “outside” influences deemed “non-scientific,” such as personal, cultural, and traditional food preferences. However, the position that views matters like nutrition and health as solely technical has not only largely been refuted by scholars of the history and philosophy of science;[42] documents related to the consultation processes behind Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide and the My Food Guide website indicate there were many interests and opinions involved throughout their development, and that issues related to food and health are always permeated by social, cultural, economic, political, and ethical issues. Researchers and policymakers might consider the value of including guiding principles that also address these aspects of food and health in Canadian nutritional guidance, such as a focus on learning about and cooking a variety of different foods, creating opportunities to cook and eat with others in social settings, and celebrating cultural diversity through food.

With new Canadian food guide materials anticipated over the next two years, it is imperative for researchers, policymakers, and consumers to follow the consultations[43] closely and keep Health Canada accountable for its promise of responsible regulation-making that will lead to better food environments to support all Canadians in eating healthfully.

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