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Access to healthy food still a struggle, says Canada's health minister

Tiffany Crawford, Vancouver Sun

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor delivers the keynote address at the 2017 Canadian Cardiovascular Conference in Vancouver Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. (Health Canada/HO)

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor delivers the keynote address at the 2017 Canadian Cardiovascular Conference in Vancouver Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. (Health Canada/HO)

Canada's health minister says many Canadians still struggle to access healthy food, a problem which is contributing to a health crisis.

"The reality is in Canada that despite our pride in Canadian beef, seafood, dairy, grains and fruits and vegetables, healthy foods can be hard to get in some places," said Ginette Petitpas Taylor, in a keynote address at the 2017 Canadian Cardiovascular Conference Saturday in Vancouver.

The conference runs until Tuesday at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

Petitpas Taylor said while northern communities still face significant challenges finding affordable produce, there are hurdles in urban areas as well.

"In many areas in this country it is easier to walk to the corner store for a bag of chips than it is to access a grocery store to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. It is also cheaper to buy that bag of chips or a value meal at any fast food chain than it is to pay for a healthy meal."

She pledged to make access to healthy food a priority by continuing to expand the government's healthy eating strategy. The ministry launched the strategy one year ago to address the health crisis, which includes the growing rate of obesity in children, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

The strategy involves four pillars: To develop better nutrition information with new labels and warnings; Protect the vulnerable population. One example is working to restrict marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to kids.; Improve access to food and availability; And improve food quality, such as banning trans fats.

Petitpas Taylor said despite numerous health campaigns, Canadians are still eating too much processed food laden with salt, fat and sugar. Under the strategy, the government is hoping to put new warning symbols on the front of processed foods high in fat, salt and sugar.

"The aisles of our grocery stores are full of parents quickly pulling cans off the shelf or pizzas out of the freezer while doing business on their phones, their kids in tow," she said. "Most Canadians don't have time to read complex labels on the go."

And, she said her government will support a bill before the House of Commons on unhealthy food and beverage marketing to children 16 years and younger

According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, 90% of products marketed to kids and teens on TV and online are high in salt, fat or sugar.

Last month, the federal government announced the final step to ban partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) from all foods sold in Canada. PHOs are the main source of industrially produced trans fats. The minister said this will reduce the incidence of heart disease in Canada.

It will also modernize Canada's stale Food Guide.

The guide, which is being overhauled for the first time in a decade and expected to be released early next year, will recommend people eat more protein from plant-based foods.

While the guidelines will encourage Canadians to consume less red meat and some dairy products like cheese, the minister said Saturday they are not telling people to cut them out of their diet.

"The change we are proposing is not to tell Canadians what to eat but how to eat to get the nutrients they need. That's really what this is all about," she said, after her keynote speech.

The meat and dairy industries have raised concerns about some of the food guide proposals, including eliminating the milk and alternative products category. The current food guide recommends two to four daily servings of milk and alternative products, depending on age and gender.

"We are absolutely not telling Canadians not to drink or consume dairy products or not to eat meat," said Petitpas Taylor. "Canadians can make their own decisions."

ticrawford@postmedia.com

With a file from The Canadian Press