Liver, potatoes and Vitamin D: the weird history of Canada’s Food Guide

Canada’s new food guide emphasizes plant-based meals and cooking at home, but it’s the latest in a long line of dietary guidelines as prescribed by the federal government.

The food guide has its roots in the 1940s, with Canada’s Official Food Rules – it wasn’t softened to “guide” until the 1960s – which had to take wartime rationing into account.

The list of “health-protected” foods in some of the early guides may sound unusual to Canadians who are used to the more contemporary four food groups.

In particular, liver was cited as an important source of nutrition by the Canadian Council of Nutrition in the 1944 and 1949 Official Food Rules, including a recommendation of fish liver oil for children and expectant mothers.

Canada’s Food Rules, 1944.

By the early 1960s, the newly-renamed Canada’s Food Guide called for a daily serving of potatoes, specifically, and reduced liver’s importance from an essential meat to something to be eaten occasionally.

Potatoes were listed as a daily food until the 1970s.

A serving of bread in 1961 included “butter or fortified margarine”, and Canadians were told they needed “400 International Units” of Vitamin D daily.

The ’60s also marked the first references to meat alternatives, with the 1961 guide suggesting “eggs, cheese, dried beans or peas may be used in place of meat”.

By 1977, the food guide had morphed into a visually-appealing, instantly understood ‘wheel’ illustration.

Metric measurements appeared for the first time, and the revised guide benefited from a comprehensive national food survey earlier in the decade.

The 1977 edition of Canada’s Food Guide.

The guide was also supplemented by Canada’s Food Guide Handbook, which provided a wealth of additional details about nutrition.

The daily potato recommendation was deleted, the ‘milk’ section was renamed ‘milk and milk alternates’, and more alternates were added alongside meat.

By the 1990s, the wheel had turned into a rainbow graphic, and the a much wider range of serving sizes – for different demographic groups – was introduced.

In 2007, “Eating Well With Canada’s Food Guide” included a specific section on nutrition for First Nations, Inuit and Metis, as will as significant online resources.


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