Health Canada: Missing in action on sodium reduction strategies



Back in 2007, Health Canada, finally acknowledging that Canadians were being buried by a minefield of salt,  formed an expert committee called the Sodium Working Group (SWG)  to come up with a strategy for reducing the amount of sodium we consume. Their report, published in 2010, at a cost of almost a million dollars, recommended action to lower our average sodium consumption from a whopping 3400 milligrams a day to the recommended upper limit of 2300 milligrams.

The report estimated that a decrease in the average sodium intake of about 1,800 mg per day would prevent 23,500 cardiovascular disease events per year, a decrease of 13%. The direct health care savings would add up to $1.38 billion per year, and with indirect costs  included, the savings would be $2.99 billion per year.

The target date was indeed far off: 2016.

Well, here we are in 2016.  Have we made any progress?

Firstly, it’s key to consider that about 80% of the sodium we consume comes from processed foods, not from our salt shakers.  According to new University of Toronto research published last week  in  the journal, Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism,  as of 2013, 84% of packaged foods had little or no sodium reduction.

The study did find, though,  that some packaged food categories had made excellent progress in reducing sodium levels. The greatest reductions in sodium levels occurred in imitation seafood, breakfast cereals, canned vegetables/legumes, plain chips, hot cereals, meat analogues, canned condensed soup, and sausages and wieners.

But the bottom line is that   84% of food categories have had little or no change between 2010 and 2013 and it so happens that these are the categories that contribute the most sodium to Canadians’ diets.

Is it a surprise that no progress has been made?

Not at all when you look at  Health Canada’s action following the release of the report in 2010. Instead of having the expert committee continue  their work on the strategy, the government disbanded the group in 2011. One of their key recommendations was to monitor voluntary reductions in sodium by the food industry.  If voluntary approaches have any chance of working, there has to be this monitoring by the government.

The progress we’ve seen in trans fat reduction is a good example. The authors of the study point out that  Health Canada’s Trans Fat Monitoring Program, while voluntary, included planned, periodic analysis and public reporting of the trans-fat content in foods and it has indeed led to significant reductions.

After all, who wants to have their company’s lack of effort reported in the media?

Considering Canada’s packaged foods are among the saltiest in the world,  action is indeed called for.  And I’m  not just talking about obvious choices such as fast food (although fast food French fries in Canada provide double the sodium of those in the U.S.).  A study, a few years back, looking at global sodium counts in various foods showed that the average sodium content of one bowl of All-Bran you can buy in Canada contained 620 milligrams of sodium (more than one-third of the daily recommended intake for adults) compared to 160 milligrams of sodium in the U.S.  

In 2013, a Private Member’s Bill was introduced – Bill C-460- The Sodium Reduction Strategy for Canada Act. It  called for the health minister to  implement the SWG’s Sodium Reduction Strategy, including establishing a monitoring system to track the progress of food companies.

It was defeated.

For maximum nutrition, ideally we would opt for more whole foods over packaged options. But the reality is  that Canadians still need help with a less salt-laden food  supply.

While the new Liberal government has stated health is a priority, we haven’t seen much change with Health Canada’s actions.  It’s about time for a start, wouldn’t you say? After all, it is that target date of 2016 when the strategy was supposed to be completed.

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Categories: Nutrition News, Rosie's Rants

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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