If you are new to Canada, you may have questions or concerns about the Canadian food system that become challenges to accessing and using healthy foods. Understanding the types of food produced locally, how they are processed and sold, and how to use local ingredients in cooking will help answer some of these questions and build your confidence in providing healthy food to you and your family.

Topics in this article aim to answer some of the questions that newcomers have when shopping and preparing foods for their families. Food systems around the world differ from country to country. It is important to trust and understand the food system in Canada to eat and live in the healthiest way in your new home.

Transition to the Canadian Food System

Question: Where can I learn more about food sold in Canada?

Food Production, Processing and Distribution

Agriculture in the Classroom Canada has excellent resources to explain agriculture and food in Canada. Resources are available in French or English.

Download some of the articles here that discuss food in Canada and address some common concerns like pesticides on food and food waste.

Farm & Food Care is another organization that can answer many of your questions about food and farming in Canada. They produce a guide called The Real Dirt on Farming that discusses many aspects of agriculture that are important to Canadians like the environment, food safety and the treatment of animals. To learn more about Manitoba Food products, why they are important and where you can buy them, read Buying Local Food.

Canada is known for having high standards for food quality and food safety.

Food that is grown or made in Canada will have this information on the food label. Read Shopping for Canadian Food from the Government of Canada for more information.

The Government of Canada is committed to improving the food system for all Canadians and has recently developed the Food Policy for Canada. This national policy will be used to guide everyone responsible for food-related decisions in our country and will help to build a healthier and more sustainable food system. Read more about the Food Policy for Canada here.

Question: How can I use the information on a Food Label?

When you are shopping for food, the best way to make healthy choices is by learning to read the information on a food label. Read Food Shopping and Understanding Food Labels for detailed information.

The Government of Canada has strict rules on what needs to be included on food labels in Canada. Food labels are your guide to making informed food choices and are found on most packaged foods. Included on a food label:

The Nutrition Facts table

  • lists the calories and nutrients the item contains
  • Makes it easy to compare similar food items
  • Helps you to select foods based on their nutrients and health

Ingredient list

  • lists all the ingredients that are in the product
  • Helpful information for people with allergies or with special diet needs

Nutrition Claims

  • Health Canada makes rules about nutrition claims allowed on food to ensure claims are not misleading.
  • There are two types of nutrition claims on foods: nutrient content claims and health claims. Both claims are optional on food labelling.

    Nutrient content claims describe the amount of a nutrient in a food. An example of a nutrient content claim is “A good source of protein” or”High in Vitamin C”.

    Health claims are any labelling or advertising that helps you to choose foods that you would want to include in a healthy diet. An example of a health claim is “a healthy diet low in saturated and trans fat may reduce the risk of heart disease”.

Dates Printed on Packaging

The Best Before date, often printed as Best Before/Meilleur Avant or BB/MA, is known as the durable life date of a food. It tells you that if the unopened product has been properly handled and stored, it should be of high quality until the specified date on it. This date refers to food quality – freshness, taste and nutritional value – not safety. Read more from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency about best before dates. This date is not the same as an expiry date. You can buy and eat foods after the best before dates, but foods must be unopened and stored properly. Once food packages are opened, the best before dates no longer apply.

An expiration or expiry date is required on specific foods that have strict nutritional specifications on the label that might not be the same after the expiry date. Food should not be bought, sold or eaten if the expiration date has passed – it should be disposed of. Read more from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency about expiration dates.

Packaged on or Prepared on dates are on food items that are packed by the store. They show the date the food item was packaged. Information on how long the product will stay fresh may also be on the label.

Beware of Food Marketing

Food marketing is advertising that promotes certain foods, but it can often be tricky and misleading. It is often printed right on the packaging and can lead consumers to believe a product is healthier than it really is. It is important to be aware of marketing because it can influence your food choices. Many foods and drinks that are marketed are unhealthy and have too much fat, sugar and sodium.
Being aware of food marketing is a smart skill that can help you recognize when foods are being marketed to you. You can avoid being the target of food marketing by learning how to read food labels rather than trusting food marketing messages.

Be careful of the following marketing messages:

  • Claims that sound too good to be true
  • Recommendations that promise quick results
  • Lists of “good” and “bad” foods
  • Reviews supporting the product, often from celebrities or highly satisfied customers
  • Stating research is “currently underway” which means that there is no current research to support the claim

For more information on food marketing, how it can affect your food choices, and how to prevent being the target of food marketing, read more from Canada’s Food Guide.

Question: What types of food preservation methods are used in Canada? Is it safe to eat frozen vegetables?

There are a few methods that are used to help prolong the life of food. In Canada there are very definite growing seasons (some of them quite short!) and preserving food allows Canadians to have access to healthy fruits and vegetables all year long.

Preservation methods include freezing, canning and dehydrating.

Freezing is the one of the easiest methods to use and is a natural form of preservation. While it may not be used as a method to preserve produce in parts of the world that have year-round access to fresh fruits and vegetables, it is very common in Canada. Freezing allows Canadians to enjoy produce and other food products all year, well after the growing season. In addition, purchasing frozen products is often less expensive than fresh foods, and they have the same nutrient value. Read more in our articles Freezing Fruits and Vegetables and Cook and Enjoy Frozen Vegetables.

Canned produce is another option for eating fruits and vegetables. Look for low sodium options and fruit that is canned in water or fruit juice. Canned vegetables are affordable and convenient as they will last for years if stored properly. Read Safe Food Storage for information on how to store canned goods. If you are interested in learning how to can your own produce, read Introduction to Canning Foods for links to complete instructions.

Dried fruit is a healthy snack option and dried vegetables are an excellent way to add nutrition to soups and recipes when cooking. Read the article Dehydrating Food at Home for more information and links to complete instructions on how you can dry your own food.

Question: How is Food Safety managed in Canada?

In Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspects and certifies products, focusing on key areas including fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy, grain, meat, plant protection and fish. They ensure that people are buying products that are safe to consume.

When there is reason to believe that food is contaminated or does not follow federal regulations, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) initiates a 5-step process to investigate and recall product if necessary. You can read more about this process here.

For more information on what to do if food is recalled, read the current Recalls and Safety Alerts from the Government of Canada. You can download the mobile app to your smartphone to receive notifications of the most recent advisories here.

What you should do if food is recalled:

  1. Read the food recall notice.
  2. Check to see if you have the recalled product.
  3. Do not consume a recalled product. It is unsafe for you and your family. Check the recall notice for guidance on disposal.

Question: My children are asking for “Canadian foods” like their friends eat at school. How do I make them happy and still maintain our traditional foods in our diet?

Children may feel pressure from their Canadian peers to eat “Canadian foods”. They may tell you that they feel ashamed or embarrassed to eat their traditional food at school because it draws attention to them as being different from everyone else. One way of navigating this is by trying to find a balance to foods rather than an all or nothing approach. This does NOT mean changing your whole menu at home. Try learning how to cook some Canadian foods that you can send to school in addition to some of your own traditional foods. You may find some new food flavours that your family will embrace as part of your diet. Read Resources for Newcomers for more information on resources available to help new immigrants in Manitoba.

If you want to learn more about nutrition and cooking, there are classes available at some resource centres:

Immigrant Centre of Manitoba
Westman Immigrant Services
Norwest Co-op Community Food Centre
Mary Jane’s Cooking School (enrolment fee for classes)

Sharing Ideas in Community Kitchens: There are a number of Community Kitchens around the province that give community members the opportunity to prepare food together. This is a great way to share your skills and learn from others, trying new food flavours and cooking techniques. Read more in our article Community Kitchens.

Read these articles next:
Canada’s Food Guide
Food Safety