Gluten-free. Paleo. Raw. Clean eating. Probiotic. Prebiotic. High fiber. Low FODMAP. The food industry is awash with buzzwords around dietary choices, many garnering a fair share of scrutiny. For Canadians living with digestive disorders, however, getting a bite to eat may require sifting through such terms to find a safe meal. The Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDHF) estimates this population to be around 20 million. That is, nearly two in three Canadians are living with a digestive disorder, and this health epidemic places an annual burden of $18 billion on our national healthcare system. These disorders range from Celiac disease (affecting roughly 330,000 Canadians) to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (for which Canada has one of the highest rates in the world) to Crohn’s, colitis, digestive cancers and heartburn. Managing these issues may be painful, embarrassing, costly and frustrating.
Allen Rekunyk, vice president of the CDHF, explains the organization’s role. Says Rekunyk, “We are the charitable foundation of the Canadian Association of Gastroenterology. Our mission is to provide content, direction, support services and feedback in a couple of areas. The first is on the disease side, providing information on the various types of disorders. The other side of our foundation, where I’m focused, is on health and wellness, giving the public information on ways they can improve their digestive health.”
Rekunyk credits the growing number of digestive disorder sufferers on better diagnostics, but also on a diet that has largely shifted from home-cooked to processed. “Processed foods are highly refined, with a higher sugar content typically,” he says. “And these tend to aggravate digestive disorders.”
For those suffering from such problems, eating out can be difficult or even impossible.
“There’s a lot of people with digestive issues out there who are saying, ‘We can’t even walk into that restaurant because we know there won’t be anything we can eat.’” says Rekunyk.
In a national study conducted in 2014, nearly 65 per cent of respondents reported that they were trying to eat a healthier diet. More than half also indicated concerns around finding processed food options that they could consider healthy.
If we extrapolate this to mean that potentially two in three Canadians are walking away from food establishments, this constitutes a massive untapped resource. The CDHF works with foodservice entities to bring those with a selective diet through the door, with specially-crafted menu items and products.
Rekunyk says that CDHF is there to provide Canadian restaurants with what they need to cater to those customers. The CDHF will help restaurateurs with their strategies, and help them market their menu items and food items to the public. “By aligning with the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation, they’re attaching their name to the most recognized source of information out there for these folks,” says Rekunyk. This means credibility—that the establishment is a trusted source of healthy food options.
The CDHF Symbol of Distinction marks menu items or products as digestive-health friendly and may be placed on items that are less processed, gluten- or lactose-free, or high in vegetables and clean proteins, for example. The seal is scientifically supported, with analysis by gastroenterologists and dieticians before approval.
With a public more informed than ever before on digestive health, and with many Canadians simply looking to follow a healthier diet, putting gut-friendly foods on the menu is in the interest of the food industry. According to the 2014 study, Canadians perceive items as healthier if they are less processed, contain less sodium and contain more vitamins and nutrients. The CDHF wants to see more fibre, pre- and probiotics (from foods like honey, whole grains and fermented foods), and lean proteins like chicken, turkey and fish.
“We believe that there’s an opportunity to educate the industry on digestive disorders and the issues, but that’s there’s also a solution,” says Rekunyk. “There are ways that we can support the industry to help attract more customers into their restaurants who otherwise would have avoided them. Endorsement from the CDHF allows restaurants to say, ‘We work with the CDHF, and we use them as a source of factual, scientifically-based information to support what we are doing as a foodservice establishment.’”
Digestive problems are on the rise, and the Canadian food industry can play a role in bringing healthier options to the menu. If this means adding 20 million more dinner reservations country-wide in the future, everybody wins.
(Sources: cdhf.ca, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3900450)