Striving for transparency: Why Canada’s pesticide regulations need an overhaul

The ConversationWritten by Valérie S. Langlois, Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS); Christy Morrissey, University of Saskatchewan; Eric Liberda, Toronto Metropolitan University, and Sean Prager, University of Saskatchewan. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh. Originally published in The Conversation.

A family harvests their wheat crop near Cremona, Alta. Pesticide use is common throughout Canadian agriculture. 

In 2021, Health Canada announced a freeze on changing maximum residue limits (MRLs) — the maximum allowable pesticide residues acceptable under Canadian law. This decision followed substantial public outcry following Canada’s most widely used weed killer glyphosate’s proposed MRL increase.

This year, three ministries (including Health Canada) unpaused the comparatively less complex residue limit adjustments and sought to transform the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA).

The move was aimed to enhance transparency, modernize their business practices, improve access to information related to pesticide decision-making, and increase the use of real world data and independent advice.

However, trust in the agency remains an issue; only 60 per cent of Canadians believe the regulatory system is keeping pace with scientific advancements in pesticide assessment, adding further pressure to Canadian’s eroding trust in science.

Challenges and controversies

In spite of ongoing concerns over risks to human and environmental health, global pesticide use has been increasing over the past 30 years.

In Canada, increased reliance on pesticides has been largely tied to the intensity of agricultural use in the main crop growing regions of the Canadian Prairies, Southern Ontario and Québec.

Advancing pesticide regulation to meet the needs of Canada’s agricultural sector, while protecting human and environmental health, is a growing challenge.

There are more than 600 registered active ingredients in more than 7,600 registered pesticide products — a staggering number that continues to rise.

From 2011 to 2021, the PMRA registered between seven and 27 new active pesticide ingredients each year. Meanwhile, it has only banned 32 of 531 prohibited active pesticide ingredients regulated in 168 other countries.

This influx puts added pressure on the agency to review volumes of scientific data produced by both the registrant and independent scientists, while continuously assessing the growing list of existing products for their safety to humans and risks to environmental health.

Some chemical registration decisions, including conditional registrations, have been highly controversial, highlighting the lack of transparency or perceived industry bias.

In the case of glyphosate, sales in Canada have topped nearly 470 million kilograms from 2007 to 2018. Public concerns over human health risks and regulated uses have led to legal challenges.

Similarly, the proposed 2018 decision to phase out three of the most widely used, environmentally persistent and toxic neuro-active neonicotinoid insecticides was later reversed in 2021. Citizens and scientists were left seeking answers on whether industry influence caused the flip-flop.

Evolving roles

Last year, as part of the transformation agenda, Health Canada aimed to fortify its pesticide review processes by establishing an independent Science Advisory Committee.

Currently comprising eight academic experts, whose backgrounds were screened for conflict of interest, the committee has been tasked to provide objective, science-based advice to inform regulatory decisions on pest control products. We are four of them.

An exploration into the connections between pesticide use and disease in humans, produced by Deutsche Welle documentaries.

Since its creation in July 2022, the committee has met five times with Health Canada’s PMRA in a public forum.

The committee has been tasked with providing input on diverse issues such as communication of MRLs, use of independent data sources, creation of open source toxicity databases, and access to registrant data used in decision-making.

As a positive early sign, the PMRA has been responsive to the committee’s advice and recommendations, which is anticipated to reinforce public trust and ensure science-based decision-making is at the core of its processes.

Informing new policies

Canada is long overdue in establishing a co-ordinated water monitoring program to systematically measure pesticide levels nationally.

The committee is providing external scientific advice on the new pilot Water Monitoring Framework Initiative.

Committee experts are giving input on guidance for site selection, monitoring frequency in different types of surface waters and analytical measurement of current use compounds and their degradation products.

The goal is to ensure this much-needed water quality data is rigorous and usable for future risk assessment and independent scientific research.

Recently, the PMRA has an added responsibility to enhance broader Canadian biodiversity goals and environmental protections by aligning its regulatory work with the 2022 Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework — aiming to reduce pesticide risk by at least 50 per cent by 2030 — alongside the enactment of Bill S-5, updating the Canadian Environmental Protection Act of 1999, to consider cumulative pesticide exposure in risk assessments. The committee is currently developing recommendations to inform approaches to best address these significant policy initiatives.

Towards a pesticide-safe Canada

The journey to more transparent and scientifically robust pesticide regulation in Canada is long overdue, yet essential.

A greater emphasis on transparency and communication of the science that underpins regulatory decision-making is urgently needed. A lack of access to data and information used in risk assessment undermines the public trust.

An over-reliance on industry supplied confidential studies, limited application of data from independent scientists, a lack of publicly available data on active ingredient pesticide sales, use and environmental monitoring, are all contributing to scepticism.

As the PMRA transitions to more transparency and reaffirms its evidence-based decision-making for pesticide regulation, insight from independent scientific researchers as part of the committee will play a critical role.

Counting carbs with AI for real-time glucose monitoring

Diabetes patients have to monitor their diet’s glucose levels closely to avoid serious health complications. While some tools exist to help manage this challenging disease, one that accurately pre-evaluates diabetes patients’ meals and allows for on-the-spot portion adjustments is lacking.

To fill this industry gap and improve the lives of diabetes patients, three Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) engineering alumni connected with TMU biomedical engineering professor Naimul Khan to develop machine-learning algorithms capable of analyzing 2D food images for 3D depth in real-time. This innovation allows users to snap a photo of their meal and have the carbohydrates counted while they wait, allowing them to adjust their portions or food choices to maintain ideal glucose levels.

Headshots of TMU professor Naimuil Khan and alumni Liam Bell, Osama Muhammad and Muhammed Ashad Khan
Clockwise from top left: Biomedical engineering professor Naimul Khan and alumni Liam Bell (biomedical), Osama Muhammad (mechanical), and Muhammed Ashad Khan (electrical) worked together through Mitacs to improve glucose self-monitoring

Alumni Liam Bell (biomedical), Osama Muhammad (mechanical) and Muhammed Ashad Khan (electrical) are using these algorithms to further develop their smartphone app and accompanying wearable device, Glucose Vision. This technology has the potential to significantly reduce future health issues and the cost burden of diabetes on the Canadian health care system.

Funding for this project provided by Mitacs. To learn more about how Mitacs supports groundbreaking research and innovation, visit the Mitacs website.

Smart wearables that measure sweat provide continuous glucose monitoring

Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) researchers Reza Eslami and Hadis Zarrin have developed non-invasive sensors powered by movement that can determine the blood sugar levels of diabetes patients from their sweat. The researchers aim to revolutionize diabetes management by creating a user-friendly, continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) system that integrates these sensors into clothing and accessories, allowing diabetes patients to self-monitor their glucose levels 24/7.

Self-powered CGM smart wearables could significantly improve diabetes patients’ quality of life by enabling them to regulate their overall blood sugar level and meet glucose targets consistently. In addition, CGMs could play an essential role in predicting the risk of diabetes development before onset.

Chemical engineering PhD candidate Reza Eslami (left) and chemical engineering professor Hadis Zarrin
Chemical engineering PhD candidate Reza Eslami (left) and chemical engineering professor Hadis Zarrin collaborate to develop a user-friendly, continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) system

Zarrin, the principal investigator at TMU-based Nanoengineering Laboratory for Energy and Environmental Technologies (NLEET) and a chemical engineering professor, collaborates with Eslami, a chemical engineering PhD candidate and his start-up, Sensofine, to make this technology widely available. They use machine learning and input from fashion designers to develop smart wearables made of high-performing materials and consider various factors in their design, including accessibility, culture, gender and age.

Funding for this project provided by Mitacs. To learn more about how Mitacs supports groundbreaking research and innovation, visit the Mitacs website.

Food for thought: How your mindset can make healthy food more alluring on social media

Written by Ethan Pancer, St. Mary’s University, Matthew Philp, Toronto Metropolitan University and Theo Noseworthy, York University. Originally published in The Conversation. 

Social media posts featuring unhealthy foods get more likes and engagement. But there are ways to change that. Photo credit: Borzoo Moazami, Unsplash. 

In today’s world, our diets are often packed with fats and sugars. Our ancient instinct to crave calorie-rich foods, which once helped us survive, now leads to harmful health side-effects.

To counteract this, food content creators on social media have been trying to push healthy eating and healthy eating content.

But here’s the kicker — this content doesn’t get much engagement. Instead, posts that show unhealthy, high-calorie foods get more likes, shares and comments. This popularity of junk food online may tempt content creators and algorithms to show more of the same, tilting our view of “normal” eating habits towards unhealthy choices. In the long run, this could fuel the obesity epidemic.

So, the challenge is clear: How do we make healthy foods as click-worthy as their unhealthy counterparts?

In a recent paper published in the European Journal of Marketing, we wanted to see if we could change people’s natural tendency to avoid healthy food content. How? By tweaking the way they think. Could getting people to think more carefully before they see food posts make them engage more with healthy food on social media?

Food marketing on social media

Social media has become a billboard for food advertising. Food companies are everywhere online, but their focus is usually on calorie-packed products. They make these foods seem fun and shareable, even though many of us would be better off seeing more healthier options.

This mismatch between what food companies promote and what is good for consumers is glaring. Posts with unhealthy food get more love and are remembered, seen and shared more than posts featuring healthier foods.

This online popularity of junk food can then shape our ideas of what’s “normal” to eat and can sway our eating habits, especially in groups that are easily influenced by peers. So, if we can figure out why this happens, we could use that knowledge to make healthy foods shine on social media.

A woman eats at a table in a restaurant with friends
There’s a mismatch between what food companies promote and what’s actually good for us. Photo credit: Alex Haney, Unsplash.

Why we love junk: An evolutionary tale

Our brains have been wired over millennia to not only crave high-calorie foods, but feel good when simply seeing such foods — it’s a survival trick from our past.

Today, this means we naturally feel good and get excited when seeing calorie-packed foods. This same excitement simply does not occur when exposed to low-calorie alternatives, which we often see as less tasty, not as enjoyable and likely not satiating.

What if we could switch our minds to avoid the biased decisions we make when we rely on our feelings? The idea of using a more thoughtful mindset is a strategy that’s been shown to work on other food habits.

The potential here is huge: thinking more thoughtfully and analytically could reduce our biases for relying more on our feelings to make decisions, and this can make healthier, lower-calorie foods more attractive, leading to more likes and shares on social media.

In our research, we took a look at how people react to social media content about food. We found that people are usually less interested in posts about healthier, lower-calorie food, something that’s been shown in previous studies.

We used videos from Tasty, a popular food network, for our experiment.

In our experiment, people were more likely to engage with a video about making a burger than a salad. But when people take the time to think about what food they’re actually engaging with, they can appreciate the benefits of lower-calorie foods, potentially leading them to choose healthier options.

Actions for a healthier social media

As prior research has demonstrated, people are naturally drawn to social media posts of unhealthy food, leaving healthier options in the dust. The more engagement these calorie-packed posts get, the more similar content floods our feeds, creating a cycle that can potentially negatively affect our real-life eating habits.

But there’s hope! As our ongoing work demonstrates, there are plenty of ways to steer the mindset towards healthier choices. Think disclaimershealth star ratings or even colour-coded nudges.

A green salad with rapini on a stone countertop
It’s possible to steer our mindsets towards making healthier food decisions. Photo credit: Ella Olsson/Unsplash.

Short mindfulness exercises from programs like Noom or WeightWatchers can also help us pause and think before we eat.

Our research can inspire dietitians, health advocates, policymakers and content creators to use this mindset magic when they’re designing their products, services or social media posts. This could lead to more engagement with healthier food content on social media, making these healthier messages travel further.

Lowering carbon emissions by optimizing energy retrofits

Through construction and operational activities, buildings are one of Canada’s highest greenhouse gas contributors. Deep energy retrofits, especially those that focus on reducing the use of fossil fuels, could lower buildings’ carbon emissions substantially. As more government agencies recognize the importance of energy-efficient retrofitting, research that leads to optimal building performance and decreased environmental impact is essential.

To assess and identify the best retrofit practices for residential buildings regarding carbon emissions, Toronto Metropolitan Univerisity’s (TMU) Department of Architectural Science chair and professor Mark Gorgolewski and TMU graduate student ​​Fatma Osman partnered with Michael Singleton, executive director of Sustainable Buildings Canada (SBC). Their research examines commonly used retrofit strategies in Ontario using building Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to identify low-carbon material selections and optimal retrofit approaches.

This research benefits the construction industry by providing designers with academic insights into low-carbon strategies to help in project planning and design. It will also allow SBC and other organizations to support the development of appropriate policies and procedures that result in low-carbon built environments.

Funding for this project by Mitacs. To learn more about how Mitacs supports groundbreaking research and innovation, visit the Mitacs website.

An emergency in the making: Ending pandemic prenatal health coverage for uninsured people is both costly and dangerous

Written by Manavi Handa, Toronto Metropolitan University. Photo credit: Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation.

Research shows that uninsured people are more likely to get care later in pregnancy, and less care overall. This increases risks for mothers and babies.

On March 31, 2023 the Ford government in Ontario ended the expanded health-care funding it put in place when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

This funding allowed everyone in Ontario to access essential health care. For the hundreds of thousands of people living in the province without health insurance, this meant access to necessary surgeries, emergency care and labour and delivery services without thousands of dollars in hospital and physician bills.

As a midwife who has worked in Toronto for over 20 years, largely with uninsured populations, and an associate professor who has focused my research and activism on this issue, I am acutely aware of how these cuts will impact pregnant people and ultimately all Canadians.

Insurance status

There are many reasons someone may not have health insurance. These can include homelessness; mental health issues; addiction; having documents withheld by an abusive partner, landlord or employer; and, for a growing number of people who live and work across Canada, lack of legal immigration status.

Increasingly, people may spend years with precarious immigration status, all the while building a life here and eagerly waiting for applications to come through. For example, a student applying for a work permit may fall out of status while one application expires and another comes through.

Protesters holding signs reading 'Québec, Canada is our home now' and 'We're Canadian by heart'
People take part in a demonstration in Montréal in November 2020, calling on the Québec government to give permanent residency status to all migrant workers and asylum seekers. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Research shows that uninsured people are more likely to get care later in pregnancy and less care overall. It is well accepted across medicine that prenatal care is linked to healthier outcomes for pregnant people and babies. In particular, prenatal care is associated with dramatically lower rates of preterm birth and low birth weight babies.

Health-care costs for babies born too small and too early are among the highest of all health-care expenditures. It’s estimated that Canada spends about $8 billion per year in health costs related to preterm babies. Babies born too small and too early are also among the most likely to have lifelong health issues, including profound cognitive and physical impairment.

There is a simple bottom line argument here: prenatal care is cheap and sick babies are very expensive.

Refugees in all but name

With increasing global health and economic disparities, we are seeing more people cross and/or stay within our borders to work and live. Like many others who work with these populations, I can say that many who do not have refugee status are refugees in all but name: escaping impossible conditions and trying to build a future here.

A person with two children wearing winter clothing
Asylum seekers cross the border at Roxham Road from New York into Canada on March 24, 2023. The irregular border crossing has been permanently closed. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

The same week the Ontario government discontinued its expanded health-care coverage, eight people drowned trying to cross the St. Lawrence River in Québec while trying to escape deportation. These are the acts of desperate people.

While hospitals are not going to turn people away in emergencies, many pregnant people need access to hospital-based care before there is an emergency, and in fact to avoid an emergency. For example, someone who needs a caesarean section because labour would be too risky, may be required to pay $6,000 or even more before they can access a provider.

For some people, this could mean deciding between rent, feeding their children or getting basic health care.

Inevitable emergencies

It is inevitable that many people will not have access to prenatal care and will wind up in an emergency department, where the hospital will be ethically required to provide care anyway. Hospitals requiring advance payment does not make people less pregnant, less high-risk or less in need of a caesarean. It means people going without care and coming to the hospital in need of emergency surgery, which has the highest cost and risks of any birth.

Adding another layer of complexity to this puzzle is that, as global caesarean section rates skyrocket, more and more undocumented migrants in Canada have had a previous caesarean section. For many, this means the safest option for delivery is a repeat caesarean section.

Putting all the pieces together, discontinuing expanded health-care funding means higher numbers of already marginalized people having less prenatal care, more preterm births and low birth weight babies, and more emergency caesarean sections for delivery — all of which result in worse outcomes, more cost on the system and more moral distress on health care providers. How is this a good idea from any angle?

A study released just one week before these cuts were announced showed the many benefits of having the expanded funding in place, including improved access to prenatal care. It also demonstrated the relief health-care providers felt at not having the moral distress of having to decide who was able to access necessary care.

Lessons learned

The expanded funding put in place during COVID-19 revealed a few things.

First, the fact that it was implemented is an acknowledgement that it was needed. If we have universal health coverage for all who live here, why did we need the program in the first place?

Second, it demonstrated that it was not a massive burden to our health-care system to provide this care. The Ontario Medical Association estimated this program cost $15 million over three years. Even if it was several times more, this is very little of our health-care budget. By providing primary and preventive care, as well as prenatal care, the program likely saved money by avoiding more expensive acute and emergency care, and it certainly saved lives.

Third, this program brought caregivers and organizations together, with health-care associations asserting that this is a health equity issue, not a medical tourism issue. Immigration status has long been established as a social determinant of health, along with factors including poverty, racialization and education level. It is about time we address this issue in Canada.

The decision to discontinue extended care is going to cost us. Not just in terms of health-care dollars — it is always better to treat high blood pressure than manage a stroke — but in terms of our ethics.

Several decades ago, we decided as a country that everyone — rich or poor — deserves access to health care. Canadians have taken pride in this and it is part of our national identity. Until everyone is covered, we need to acknowledge that we do not, in fact, have universal health care, and decide what this means to us as a country.

This article was co-authored by Shezeen Suleman of Toronto Metropolitan University, and Rachel Spitzer, AJ Mata and Jenny Yang Klimis of University of Toronto.

Freshwater ecosystems are becoming increasingly salty. Here’s why this is a concern

Written by Alison Derry, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), Miguel Cañedo-Argüelles, Universitat de Barcelona & Stephanie J Melles, Toronto Metropolitan University. Photo credit: Author provided. Originally published in The Conversation

Roads require de-icing strategies in northern regions, but this practice has negative effects on aquatic biodiversity.

Freshwater ecosystems around the world are becoming saltier and saltier. Many human-driven factors contribute to freshwater salinization, including: irrigation, oil extraction, potash mining, and road de-icing.

As a result, salts enter waterways. But as bad news never comes alone, the salts are often accompanied by a toxic cocktail of other pollutants, whose combined toxicological effects are largely unknown.

Although the problem of rising freshwater salinization went largely unaddressed for many decades, it has gained considerable attention during the last 20 years.

Scientists around the world are working together to understand the ecological impacts of increasing salinization on aquatic biodiversity and food webs. Our ultimate goal? To examine the adequacy of water quality toxicity thresholds for the protection of aquatic life.

Salinization, a major problem

Canada is home to a majority of the world’s freshwater resources, mostly concentrated in the provinces of Ontario and Québec, where close to 5 million tons of road salt are applied annually to de-ice roads.

Combined with climate change and increasing frequency and duration of drought in many regions of the world, the problem is getting worse. This is a major concern. Why? Because the availability of freshwater resources will become a critical factor for humanity over the next 50 years.

A world map shows the freshwater availability in cubic metres per person and per year as of 2007.
The inequitable global distribution of surface freshwater resource availability. Source: Philippe Rekacewicz, February 2006.

Researchers from around the world mobilized

We recently presented a series of articles in a special issue on freshwater salinization in the journal Limnology and Oceanography Letterspublished last February.

In this special issue, we focus on sodium chloride (NaCl), the same molecule found in table salt, as a key agent of freshwater salinization. We highlight a series of co-ordinated field experiments, conducted by researchers in North America and Europe, that have addressed the impacts of freshwater salinization on zooplankton (microscopic crustaceans) at a regional scale.

Zooplankton are an ecologically critical group in aquatic food webs and are often used as indicators to detect environmental change due to their sensitive ecological tolerances.

The main conclusions of these experiments are as follows:

  • Water quality guidelines in Canada and the United States (standards) do not adequately protect freshwater zooplankton, which could lead to an increase in the abundance of algae, which the zooplankton feed on. This is because when zooplankton abundance decreases, especially for large grazers such as Daphnia, phytoplankton can proliferate under conditions of reduced predation;
  • Salinization of freshwater systematically leads to a loss of abundance and diversity of zooplankton in all regions; and
  • Individuals of the same zooplankton species do not all exhibit the same tolerance to salinity. Thus, this variation may interfere with our ability to predict community-level responses. Water quality guidelines may therefore need to be adjusted to become more region-specific.
Maps show the sites for the experiment in California, Eastern Canada and Northeastern U.S. and Spain and Sweden. Below is an image of a tree-lined lake.
Regional coverage of a co-ordinated field mesocosm experiment (Hintz et al. 2022b, Hébert et al. 2022; Arnott et al. 2022), with an example of one of the experiments that was conducted at Lac Croche (Québec, Canada) (Astorg et al. 2022) (Figure modified from Hintz et al. 2022b).

A matter of regulation

Many questions remain unanswered. However, what we do now know is that long-term water quality guidelines (Canada: 120 mg Cl⁻¹L⁻¹; United States: 230 mg Cl⁻¹L⁻¹) and in the short term (Canada: 640 mg Cl⁻¹L⁻¹; United States: 860 mg Cl⁻¹L⁻¹) for chloride concentrations are too high to protect aquatic life in Canada and in the United States. For reference, a pinch of salt in a pot of water corresponds to approximately 0.3 g of Cl⁻¹/L⁻¹. In other words, adverse effects are observed at much lower concentrations. Regulations in Canada and the United States should therefore be reviewed. In Europe, the water quality standards for salinity for the protection of aquatic life in freshwater ecosystems are mostly absent.

The importance of taking concrete action

Water quality guidelines for the protection of aquatic life are generally established using laboratory tests (called toxicological tests) on a single species.

However, aquatic habitats harbour a complex array of predators, prey, competitors, and pathogens, the interactions of which can limit our ability to predict the responses of communities and species to pollutants .

Thus, the collective research published in this special issue also highlights the importance of understanding ecological responses in multi-species communities in natural settings to assess the responses of freshwater life to human impacts.

A small body of water surrounded by trees.
Aerial view of a field enclosure experiment conducted in a chloride-sensitive lake in the Laurentians (Québec) (Astorg et al. 2022). Photo credit: Étienne Laliberté.

Overall, we should develop alternative applications and technologies that are more sustainable and efficient.

We also need to establish more appropriate water quality guidelines to improve controls on salts entering our freshwater environments to reduce adverse effects on aquatic life and the quality of our freshwater resources.

Rooms with a view: Opening doors to new health care approaches

Research stories highlighted in Rooms with a view: Opening doors to new health care approaches include:

  • “Reducing harm through innovation”, featuring research by Alex Boukin and Ari Forman.
    By creating a device that can analyze the chemical makeup of unregulated drugs, TMU alumnus Alex Boukin and business partner Ari Forman are developing technology that supports harm reduction efforts.
  • “Increasing vaccination rates among older adults”, featuring research from the National Institute on Ageing (NIA).
    More than 90 per cent of Canadians aged 60-plus rolled up their sleeves for a COVID-19 vaccine. Can the lessons from COVID-19 be applied to protecting older adults from other preventable diseases?
  • “Improving the odds for cancer treatment”, featuring research by Kathleen Wilkie.
    Why do cancer treatments work for some patients and not others? Researchers use mathematical modelling and computer-aided simulations to help find the answer and guide patients to personalized treatment options.
  • “An online tool to improve the health-care experiences of the LGBTQ2S population”, featuring research by Erin Ziegler.
    Members of the queer community often experience discrimination when accessing health care. A new nursing toolkit helps health-care workers examine biases, evaluate their knowledge and better understand patient needs.
  • “New psychology research shows how music therapy reduces anxiety”, featuring research by Frank Russo.
    A mission to turn music into medicine led to the development of AI-powered digital music therapy. Clinical trials show music helps reduce anxiety after just one session.
  • “Sole Expression: A trauma-informed dance intervention program”, featuring research by Jennifer Lapum and Jennifer Martin.
    Movement, like dance, can help the body release stress and emotion. Combining dance programs with clinical therapy services for youth enables them to access support services in new ways while reducing symptoms of trauma.

Preventing obesity starts in the grocery aisle with food packaging

Written by Eugene Y. Chan, Toronto Metropolitan University and Liangyan Wang, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Photo credit: Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation

With so much competition, food marketers need to grab the attention of consumers so they buy their products, not another competitors. This is why product packaging is so important. 

In 2018, Statistics Canada reported that nearly one in three Canadians were obese. Similar figures have been reported in Australia, but more concerning is the United States, where over forty percent of the population is obese.

Obesity is not the only diet-related illness to be concerned about — diabetes is just as prevalent. When it comes to such diseases, diet and physical activity help reduce the chance of being diagnosed. In fact, when it comes to Type 2 diabetes, diet and physical activity can prevent 50 per cent of it.

Food packaging plays an important role in diet-related illnesses. We live in a food environment that prioritizes marketing, sometimes to the detriment of our health.

Consider the average supermarket, where there can be upwards of 60,000 different products in a store. With so much competition, food marketers need to grab the attention of consumers so they buy their products, not a competitor’s. This is why product packaging is so important.

Food marketing uses a variety of tactics, like using bright, bold colours and eye-popping visuals, to try and persuade consumers to buy certain products. They also change the size of food images shown on products — the size of the chip on Dorito’s packaging or the size of the bread on a jar of peanut butter, for example.

Bigger is better

Our recent research looked at how something seemingly innocuous, like the size of food images on product packaging, can impact how likely it is that someone buys a product. While the size of this image might appear to be harmless, our research found that it can increase the food’s appeal to consumers: the larger the image, the better tasting consumers believe the food will be, which increases the chance of them purchasing the product.

A row of Pringles cans on the shelf of a grocery store.
The colour and size of food packaging can make a produce more or less appealing to consumers. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

The reason for this is a concept called mental imagery, which suggests that the way people visualize a product in their minds can make them think a product is better, higher quality or, in our case, tastier.

This has implications when it comes to food choice. When thinking about what foods are most appealing, junk foods, such as chips, popcorn and candy, come to mind. These kinds of products often have large, exaggerated images of food on their packaging. Since the size of the food image on these products are bigger, it makes consumers psychologically salivate more, persuading them into buying and eating these unhealthier foods.

Colour matters

Ours isn’t the only research that has been done on health habits and food product packaging. Similar research has also found that the colour of food packaging and the location of food images on a product also impacts whether or not consumers are more likely to buy a product.

When it comes to colours, red significantly increases a food’s perceived taste, while green increases the food’s perceived healthiness. Food images that are located higher on the package suggest that the food is “light” and therefore “healthy,” making it more likely for a consumer to purchase the product.

Previous studies have also found that junk food brand names are easily remembered by children, and parents often listen to their children when making food choices. Also, the use of traffic light signals on food labels promotes healthier food choices by allowing people to identify the nutritional content directly on the food package.

Knowing and understanding how appearance impacts food desirability is crucial for marketers and has resulted in a special visual language among consumers and products. This allows, for example, people with diabetes and hypertension to quickly locate foods that are appropriate for their needs in a grocery store. However, it also makes some consumers vulnerable to marketing ploys when they aren’t aware of how advertisers are manipulating them.

Healthy shopping strategies

There are some strategies consumers can use when shopping to help maintain healthy habits. Instead of focusing on the images of food on packaging, we recommend that consumers focus more on the nutritional needs and requirements.

Consumers should read the entire nutritional label front and back to try to make the best informed decision possible and try not to be swayed by what the image on a package looks like.

Don’t let the size of the food image tempt you: some Pringles or gummy bears is fine as a little indulgence, but if you’re tempted by these food products every time you step into your local grocery, it can have serious consequences for your heath.

Woman reading the nutritional label of a grocery store product.
When shopping for healthy foods, read nutritional labels front and back to try to make the best informed decision you can. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

Food product packaging doesn’t just have implications for consumers, but for policymakers as well. Most governments, including Canada’s, focus on nutrition labels and how food marketers advertise to consumers of all ages, such as rules limiting junk food ads during Saturday morning cartoons. But regulation should start even more fundamentally with the packaging itself.

While it might seem extreme to regulate the size of a scoop of ice cream on a box of Chapman’s, food image size is especially relevant when it comes to junk food. If we want to reduce the prevalence of diet-related health issues, like obesity and diabetes, regulating the size of images, which is what we see first and foremost in the grocery aisle, on food products might just be what’s needed.

A prescription for health: City vegetable gardens produce more than just food

Written by Sarah Elton, Toronto Metropolitan University and Donald C. Cole, University of Toronto. Photo credit THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn. Originally published in The Conversation

Community vegetable gardens, such as this one in Pickering, Ont., support health and should be seen as part of the city’s food system.

It’s garden season, which means gardeners are beginning to enjoy their homegrown vegetables. However, for those who live in cities, urban life can reinforce the idea that gardens are a bonus, maybe a hobby, but not a necessity of life.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, supermarkets were kept open because of the key role they play in feeding us. But the Ontario government originally shut down community gardens, ignoring that gardens also feed us. The gardens were only opened again after public pressure.

As public health researchers with a longstanding interest in food systems and health, we’ve found that, contrary to the idea of gardening as a hobby, gardens are essential to life.

We came to this conclusion based on interviews with diverse gardeners in Toronto, a survey of more than 100 people and extensive participant observation — which in this case meant gardening together. Study participants included yard gardeners, community plot gardeners, rooftop gardeners and even people tending to food-producing plants inside their apartment. Our findings are published in the peer-reviewed journal, Food, Culture & Society.

Growing food in the city

To grow food, you have to be committed. There’s the weeding and watering, and dealing with squirrels and raccoons who might get to the food first.

You must invest in seeds and equipment and there could be a fee paid to the city for access to an allotment plot if you don’t have space of your own. If the garden you tend isn’t near where you live, you also must consider transportation time. And after all that, the crop might fail.

A church with city buildings behind it and a garden in the foreground.
A community vegetable garden in downtown Toronto. Photo credit: Sarah Elton/Author provided

Although prices are rising, produce is ample in grocery stores. So to better understand the role of gardening in the city, we asked why do people do it in the first place?

The most common response was that gardening was perceived to boost health. One retired worker summed it up well:

“In wintertime, it’s necessary to do more workouts. But summertime, if I miss the gym, I don’t feel bad because I am doing more.”

Others noticed that gardening supported their mental health. They felt calm with the plants, their mind alert. In some cases, the gardens gave participants a reason to wake up in the morning at times when they were experiencing mental health problems.

To several people, the plants were even seen to provide companionship. “I’m living a healthy life because of my garden,” said one participant. Gardening contributed to their happiness.

Food and food security

Another reason why people told us they gardened was, not surprisingly, for food. Most gardeners grew a wide selection of food-producing plants, with 31 per cent of respondents to the survey reporting that they grew as many as 10 to 20 different kinds.

Importantly, several of the gardeners who provided interviews and who also identified as low-income, stressed the importance of gardening to their food security. One gardener, who has a small plot on church-owned land, told us she grew so much food that she didn’t have to go to the supermarket in the summer, and that helped with her family’s finances.

Cropped image of person in striped shirt with hands laden with tomatoes, cucumber and other vegetables.
People who grow food in the city not only eat their own produce, but share it with friends and family. Photo credit: Pixabay

Another gardener said he was able to make a significant contribution to his family by producing enough vegetables on his allotment plot to not only eat in the summer but to freeze for winter. And one woman grew the organic food she couldn’t afford at the store.

People not only kept this food for themselves, but they shared it with friends and family.

Cultural connection

For gardeners who have cultural ties to other countries, some of whom are newer immigrants, growing their own food is a way to ensure access to the kinds of vegetables they grew up eating.

“We left but we still want the taste,” one man said of why he grows a kind of spinach from South Asia. At the store, these vegetables — if they are available — are expensive and aren’t as fresh.

Our findings reflect what other researchers have found about the cultural, health and food security benefits of gardens.

Gardening and urban health

So if growing food in gardens in the city is central to health, food security and culture, how might policymakers think about gardening differently?

We argue that gardens should be considered essential parts of our food system. Gardens are important to the people who tend to them — and also to the many people whose names are on waiting lists for space to grow food in the city, who may not have space of their own.

In our survey, people who owned their homes were more likely to report that they’d been growing food for more than 10 years. Homeownership often includes outdoor space in the form of a yard or balcony, which others may not have access to. The pandemic reminded us how many of our eco-social systems are inequitable and fragile, and other researchers have documented how people turned to gardens at this time.

Various levels of government and other institutions with jurisdiction over land (such as those that oversee hydro corridors as well as schools, religious institutions, apartment and condo land owners) must take action to broaden secure access to garden space, in particular for people who don’t have a backyard.

We should be investing more in publicly accessible gardens as an essential part of our food system.

Fear of travelling: Canadians need to put travel risk into perspective

Written by , Wilfrid Laurier University; Frederic Dimanche, Ryerson University. Photo credit: Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

Media coverage of public health advisories has caused anxiety in many citizens who may deem tourism activities too risky during the pandemic.

The pandemic hit nearly two years ago, and since then, Canadians’ fear of travel has been a constant theme. Tuning into daily COVID-19 briefings likely contributed to this heightened sense of fear.

In March 2020, the federal government issued a blanket travel warning, which was only lifted on Oct. 22, 2021. As recently as May 2021, Ontario Premier Doug Ford blamed travel and borders for a rise in cases when evidence pointed to there being other causes for case increases like lack of proper PPEcommunity spreadovercrowded housing and poverty.

The “problem frame” here is how certain messages shared during the pandemic have helped maintain a fear of travel over time.

As researchers whose work looks at travel and tourism, we were curious about the impact of COVID-19 briefings and the way media reported them on the industry. We think it’s time to put fear into perspective for the traveller.

Discourses of blame and shame

An analysis — published as part of the Travelling Towards Tomorrow Together: Travel and Tourism Research Association Canada conference — of Canadian online news, noted how the media has perpetuated a fear of travel through narratives that emphasize safety, mistrust and guilt.

Reading, listening and watching the news has caused anxiety in many citizens who deem tourism activities too risky during the pandemic.

Some news outlets reported on inconsistent health-related messaging and the dangers of travel, while others reported on an industry-sponsored study that showed there was little flying risk if preventative measures were in place. This caused confusion.

These varying messages and subsequent reporting aren’t a total surprise. Especially considering how at the start of the pandemic, we faced an unknown virus, with minimal knowledge. Tests, treatments and prevention strategies have evolved, but different phases of the pandemic — and health-related messaging and media coverage — highlight how risk changed and evolved over time.

Regardless, media coverage of changing government travel restrictions and differing health and safety guidelines — like masking — exacerbated a discourse of mistrust in media and in government officials.

Avoiding leisure travel for the past 18 months has led to a significant impact on our mental well-being. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

How Canadians feel about travel

An April 2021 survey found that 82 per cent of Canadians perceived taking a vacation as a large or moderate risk.

Feelings of guilt and travel shaming influenced how Canadians felt about travelling — many likely thought they will be judged for putting others at risk.

Politicians shamed Canadians who chose to travel whether it was early in the pandemic (before any travel restrictions were in place), or later when tourism-related businesses advertised cheap domestic flights and trips.

When the government banned flights to “sun destinations” in January 2021, many Canadians took it to heart and stayed home. Just four months later, messaging from the travel and tourism sector surfaced about it being up to Canadians to save summer tourism.

After the Canadian government lifted global travel restrictions on non-essential travel with no press release, the media reported on the problem frame.

Stories highlighted how “mindful” Canadians should be when travelling south and some shared messages from epidemiologists that we should keep our foot on the brake of travel to keep incident rates low, while others focused on Canadians return to travel helping struggling Caribbean islands.

The Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable — a group of Canadian tourism and travel businesses hoping to “reopen the economy” — recently called on the government to remove “non-science-based obstacles to international travel, such as expensive pre-departure PCR tests for fully vaccinated travellers, that disproportionately impact average Canadian families.”

Canadians are among the most hesitant when considering an international leisure trip. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Perceived risk

There are nuances to how different cultures perceive travel risk. Canadians normally find travel less risky than Americans and Australians. However, a recent study about post-pandemic travel showed that Canadians were more cautious to travel than their American or European counterparts.

A columnist in the Toronto Sun, called Canadians out for being “unjustifiably afraid” of travel. Travelling and flying always present a risk, but that risk is low if mitigation measures and infection prevention are observed.

It’s important to note however, that after Alberta lifted its restrictions they faced a devastating surge in cases.

Canadians are among the most hesitant when considering an international leisure trip, according to a survey conducted by TCI Research. The majority of them (81 per cent) have also paid close attention to media during the pandemic says an Ipsos survey — actively seeking risk information which influences their perception and knowledge.

Managing travel risk and media messages

Canadians perceive travel risk subjectively and reduce risk by remaining cautious and choosing not to travel.

resident sentiment study by Destination Canada shows that in recent months, feelings of safety have decreased or remained unchanged across five Canadian provinces.

But now that the vast majority of Canadians are vaccinated, and many tourism businesses and destinations have implemented careful safety protocols for travellers, those feelings of safety should change.

It is time for Canadians to mitigate travel risks by adopting objective risk management strategies.

The risk of getting COVID-19 will not be zero, it will likely never be zero. People must continue to assess risk based on science, wear masks in public and pay attention in crowded areas. When vaccinated, Canadians should feel more comfortable travelling because travel professionals are working to keep us safethere is life after vaccination.

Despite it being important to respect countries’ travel advisories to prevent the spread of COVID-19, avoiding leisure travel for the past 18 months has led to a significant impact on our mental well-being and a loss of jobs across the tourism industry.

Now that restrictions are lifting and leisure travel is resuming, we need to be reminded that travel has positive effects on our health and wellness.