Still too salty: Sodium in packaged foods largely unchanged by Health Canada targets

A federal strategy to get Canadians to shake the amount of salt in their diets has resulted in only a relative sprinkle of change in the amount of sodium found in thousands of packaged foods commonly eaten by consumers, a study has found.

In 2010, Health Canada set out voluntary targets for the food industry to cut sodium content in processed and packaged foods, with the aim of slashing Canadians’ consumption of salt.

Salt in packaged foods

Excessive salt, or sodium, consumption can cause high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney dysfunction. The goal of the federal program was to gradually reduce Canadians’ average daily intake of sodium by one third by the end of 2016.

On average, Canadians’ sodium intake exceeds 3,400 mg per day — more than double the recommended 1,500 mg and well above the daily maximum of 2,300 mg set by the Institute of Medicine, a non-profit organization that provides evidence-based public health recommendations to the Canadian and U.S. governments.

“Those sodium reduction targets weren’t to get us down to the recommended level; they were to get us down to the upper level,” study co-author Mary L’Abbe, chair of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, said in a release. “It was envisioned as the first step in a longer process of getting our sodium levels to about half of what they are now.”

But a 2013 analysis of more than 16,000 packaged food items by the U of T research team discovered that only a sixth of these foods, lumped into about 100 categories, had curtailed their sodium content.

“When we looked at those, what we found was that 82 per cent of those categories had no change in sodium and 16 per cent had reduced sodium content,” said JoAnne Arcand, who led the study published Tuesday in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism.

The most significant reductions in sodium — about 15 to 20 per cent — were seen in such food categories as condiments, breakfast cereals, canned soups and canned vegetables, said Arcand, now an assistant professor at the Ontario Institute of Technology in nearby Oshawa, Ont.

Bread products, which she called a top contributor to salt in the diet, saw sodium content fall by about 7 per cent.

“When we looked further into the bread product category … we saw that English muffins and rolls and buns made the biggest improvement,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “But the pantry breads, which Canadians consume a lot of, they didn’t make as much progress.”

While sodium content in the sausage and wiener category fell by about 10 per cent, other deli meats saw virtually no salt reduction, said Arcand, noting that Canadians are big consumers of deli meats.

“So we would hope that between this mid-point evaluation and the end of 2016 that we would see some more progress made in the deli meat category.”

Although the aim of setting benchmark targets was to encourage food producers to cut sodium content in all their products, the amount an individual consumes depends on the types of foods they eat.

“We know that older people consume more soups and younger people, children may consume more hot dogs,” she said. “So in order for (the strategy) to be an effective, equitable public health intervention, we really should see reductions in a broad number of categories rather than in just a few.”

Dr. Norm Campbell of the University of Alberta, who holds a chair in hypertension prevention and control, said the findings show that while the food industry is making some progress in shrinking the amount of sodium in its products, it is not keeping pace with voluntary standards it set for itself.

“Further, we know that food labels have historically underestimated the sodium content of foods,” said Campbell, adding that government should be monitoring the accuracy of food labels and the food industry should be held to account for meeting reduction targets.

“Regular monitoring would send a strong message to industry about the importance of taking action to reduce sodium, trans fats and added sugar in packaged foods,” he said in a statement. “We should not have to rely on scientists alone to undertake such a large-scale, complex analysis and publish critical data about it.”

Arcand said that without such independent research, there would be no way to gauge whether voluntary targets are being met because of the way in which Ottawa set up the sodium reduction strategy.

A similar federal program aimed at slimming trans fats in foods has been largely successful, possibly because content is monitored by the government and the findings are posted online for public scrutiny.

“With sodium reduction, we don’t have that same program,” she said. “There’s no government monitoring of this overall, which is why we as researchers took this on to see how well the food industry is doing, so it can inform some next steps or at least provide a progress report on how industry is doing half-way through.”

Also on The Globe and Mail

This fork tricks your brain into thinking your food is salty

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

Readers Comments (4)

  1. Recommended52times
    I guess today is a “salt is bad” day! This is from Scientific American on a “salt is okay” day:

    It’s Time to End the War The zealous drive by politicians to limit our salt intake has little basis in science
    By Melinda Wenner Moyer on July 8, 2011 121
    For decades, policy makers have tried and failed to get Americans to eat less salt. In April 2010 the Institute of Medicine urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate the amount of salt that food manufacturers put into products; New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already convinced 16 companies to do so voluntarily. But if the U.S. does conquer salt, what will we gain? Bland french fries, for sure. But a healthy nation? Not necessarily.
    This week a meta-analysis of seven studies involving a total of 6,250 subjects in the American Journal of Hypertension found no strong evidence that cutting salt intake reduces the risk for heart attacks, strokes or death in people with normal or high blood pressure. In May European researchers publishing in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the less sodium that study subjects excreted in their urine—an excellent measure of prior consumption—the greater their risk was of dying from heart disease. These findings call into question the common wisdom that excess salt is bad for you, but the evidence linking salt to heart disease has always been tenuous.

    I think we should take the media’s pronouncements on fat, sugar, salt, carbs, etc. with a grain of salt.

  2. Salt is added to foods to enhance, and also to balance, flavours. Remove salt, reduce flavour.

    In packaged foods, it is also used as a preservative. I assume the food companies have worked out the level of this additive that balances flavour with shelf life. What then are the unintended consequences of reducing/removi­ng salt? Would salt be replaced by another preservative? Would food waste increase?

    Things are never as simple as some would argue.

  3. Bradley Strider May 18, 2016 @ 7:02 pm

    I don’t suppose there’s any chance that Health Canada’s daily limit of 2000mg — which almost nobody adheres to, except a few who end up with poorer health outcomes than people consuming 2500-5000mg — might be too low?

    Nah. Obviously it’s an emergency and the government will have to get tough on fat. I mean, salt. I mean, sugar. Whatever.

  4. Here’s a tip: don’t eat packaged and processed food!


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