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Executive Summary

What’s to Eat? Improving Food Literacy in Canada

by Alison Howard, Jessica Edge, and Daniel Munro

Together with industry and government, households play a central role in ensuring that the food they eat is healthy, nutritious, and safe. In addition, household food-related knowledge and behaviour affect industry and government decisions about food production, consumption, and regulation. What individuals know about food, and whether they put that knowledge to use, influences the extent to which key food strategy objectives are achieved, particularly healthy food, food safety, household food security, and to some extent, environmental sustainability.

In recent years, there has been a rise in interest in the role of food in health and in how food is grown and processed. Yet, it is unclear whether household attitudes, skills, and knowledge about food—food literacy—have developed along with that interest. As this report reveals, despite the importance of food literacy to achieving key food objectives, there are gaps and deficits in Canadians’ knowledge and skills related to food. Further, while food literacy is important, it is only one of many factors that affect household food selection and preparation decisions. Other factors include, for example, price, convenience, taste, and availability.

The report’s findings are being used to inform the development of the Canadian Food Strategy. In particular, the report defines food literacy; assesses the current state of household food literacy and its impact on dietary and health outcomes and the environment; explores education and awareness-raising programs and initiatives that aim to improve food literacy; and recommends strategies for governments, industry, the health and education sectors, civil society, and households to further enhance Canadians’ food literacy.

Food Literacy and Dietary Outcomes

Evidence from a number of studies shows a strong correlation between nutritional knowledge and healthy eating or dietary quality. Moreover, public awareness and education campaigns and industry efforts to improve food’s healthiness have been key components of past successful public health initiatives. Interventions to improve food literacy can have a positive effect on the food consumption habits of children and adolescents. While increasing their nutritional knowledge leads to them choosing healthier foods, children tend to prefer nutritional foods that also taste good. Encouraging family involvement in household food preparation is one path to increasing the food preparation knowledge and skills of younger household members.

Food Literacy and Health Outcomes

As a subset of health literacy, food literacy affects health outcomes in several ways. Food literacy positively impacts food safety when proper knowledge and behaviours toward food storage and handling are observed. Knowledge and use of food label information can help improve diets and thereby help to reduce health risks. Similarly, household cooking skills can contribute to a healthier diet and better health outcomes. Finally, dietary knowledge is a factor in food and meal choices that will contribute positively to overall health.

Food Literacy and Environmental Outcomes

Although environmental impacts are not households’ top priority in terms of food issues, household decisions are pushing the agendas of the authentic, local, and organic food movements as well as environmental sustainability efforts, including reductions in food packaging and chemical use in farming practices.1 Canadian households would like additional information to be provided on food product labels, especially on health and environmental factors such as the presence of pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones, as they feel this information is currently not clear on product labels.2

The State of Food Literacy in Canada

Canadians have a good general understanding of food, nutrition, and health, but may lack a thorough understanding of the details of how they are connected. Despite the confidence shown in surveys of self-reported knowledge, household knowledge of nutrition is weak in some areas. Publications such as Canada’s Food Guide have helped many Canadians improve their eating habits, but studies that track fruit and vegetable consumption indicate that some Canadians are unaware of or do not follow their recommendations.
Although the majority of Canadians are food label readers, label use varies by subgroup, and many Canadians may be struggling to use and interpret labels because they lack the numeracy skills to do so. In addition, high levels of food waste and the relatively low percentage of Canadians who both have and follow a household budget suggest that many households could improve their planning and purchasing habits. Likewise, the low percentage of children and adolescents who regularly participate in family meal preparation is a concern, and may lead to future generations with increasing cooking skill deficits. Moreover, certain groups of people, including new immigrants and some Aboriginal peoples, ostensibly face more barriers to food literacy than other groups.

Strategies to Improve Food Literacy

Programs administered at the federal, provincial, territorial, regional, and community levels are making notable steps toward raising food literacy levels. Nutritional information, guides, and tools are helping Canadians of all ages to develop their food literacy. Canada’s Food Guide—a relatively low-cost, low-intervention strategy—is a popular information source for improving household knowledge and dietary choices. Nutrition education for children is especially important as a positive influence on their food-related knowledge and skills, eating and physical activity behaviours, and health status. School meal programs are an excellent means of providing students with nutritious food as well as education on nutritious and healthy diets. Public-private partnerships leverage a variety of approaches—including experiential learning, point-of-purchase nutrition logos and labelling, and menu labelling—to increase and enhance household food literacy skills.

Future Considerations

Improving food literacy in Canada will support better choices in diet and nutrition, attitudes, and food skills leading to improved health and safety. In addition, improved food literacy will positively impact environmental sustainability. While good work has already been done, Canada still has considerable room to improve food literacy. Further action needs to be taken at the federal, provincial/territorial, and community levels to promote healthier diets and eating patterns. Information and education are crucial, but must be presented using strategies that inspire lasting behavioural changes.

Many stakeholders—including governments, businesses, and households, as well as the health and education sectors—have roles to play, as programs that use a multi-stakeholder approach can achieve greater reach and so generate bigger impacts. Seven recommendations for improving food literacy are the following:

  • Make nutritional information more effective, understandable, and accessible for household use.
  • Tailor food literacy programs to high-risk populations and community needs.
  • Incorporate food literacy into school curricula.
  • Foster parental involvement in hands-on experiential opportunities to develop food literacy.
  • Create guiding principles for children’s advertising.
  • Replicate highly successful international food literacy programs.
  • Track, study, and evaluate food literacy initiatives.

1  Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, The Canadian Consumer, 15–17.

2  Canadian Consumer Initiative, Supporting Consumers.

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Alison Howard Alison Howard
Principal Research Associate
Organizational Effectiveness and Learning
Jessica Edge Jessica Edge
Research Associate
Organizational Effectiveness and Learning
Daniel Munro Daniel Munro
Principal Research Associate
Organizational Effectiveness and Learning

Read the Full Report

What's to Eat report cover imageThis report discusses why food literacy matters; analyzes the state of food literacy in Canada; highlights current efforts to develop food literacy; and recommends strategies to further improve Canadian household food literacy.

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Food impacts Canadians in an extraordinary range of ways. It affects our lives, our health, our jobs, and our economy.