Health Canada aims to cut Canadians’ salt intake

TheStar.com – News/Ontario/healthzone.ca
May 31, 2010.   Megan Ogilvie,  Joseph Hall

In an attempt to lower the massive and often lethal amounts of salt Canadians consume, Health Canada plans to call on the food industry to substantially reduce the amount of sodium lurking in processed foods.

The Sodium Reduction Strategy, to be released in July, will rely on the industry to follow voluntary reduction targets aimed at slashing the average Canadian’s daily consumption of sodium from 3,400 mg to 2,300 mg by 2016.

Public health officials, researchers and doctors have lauded the strategy — coming almost three years after Ottawa convened a working group on the issue — as a good first response to the mounting concern over salt in our daily diet. But many also question whether voluntary sodium reduction targets go far enough in protecting Canadians from too much salt’s harmful effects.

“It’s hard to imagine at this stage how voluntary regulations in the long run would be sufficient,” said Bruce Van Vliet, a cardiovascular researcher at St. John’s Memorial University.

Dr. Marco Di Buono, director of research at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, said the proposed targets for industry are not as aggressive as they should be to achieve the sodium reductions needed to protect Canadians’ health. The health groups involved in the strategy have recommended an immediate reduction in sodium to an average of 2,300 mg per day, with a goal of hitting 1,500 mg per day over the next 10 years, he said.

“The targets that have been set for some of these core food stuffs that represent the bulk of sodium intake from prepackaged foods is in some cases only a 20 per cent reduction,” he said. “We need to go much further than the proposed targets if we are going to ultimately have an average sodium intake for all Canadians that is considered safe and healthy.”

Most Canadians consume excessive amounts of salt, which leads to high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, one in every seven deaths from stroke and one in every 11 deaths from heart disease could be spared if Canadians cut salt intake by half.

Dr. Hasan Hutchinson, director general of Health Canada’s office of nutrition policy and promotion, laid out the strategy’s details Friday at a symposium on the issue organized by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Among other things, the strategy will:

  • Publish voluntary targets for 10 of the highest sodium food groups, including bakery products, cereals, dairy products, processed meats, snacks, sauces and soups. The targets will list the maximum amount of sodium that can be included in 100 grams of food. For example, the proposed target for 100 per cent whole wheat bread is 400 mg of sodium or less per 100 grams.
  • Define timelines for the food industry to meet the guidelines, and establish an outside agency to monitor industry’s progress. Health Canada expects industry to meet targets by or before 2016 by using gradual, stepwise reductions.
  • Provide a plan to evaluate the program, which would include the option of implementing stronger measures, including regulatory legislation, if needed.

At the Friday presentation, Hutchinson defended the voluntary strategy, saying that it would bring guidelines into play immediately. Stiffer regulations, he said, would ensure push-back from the food industry and take years to implement.

Kevin Willis, a member of the Sodium Working Group, said voluntary guidelines may lower the sodium content in several egregiously salted food products.

“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit out there that a voluntary (system) might pick off,” said Willis, who heads the Canadian Stroke Network’s sodium reduction campaign. But, he added, the use of salt is so pervasive across the food supply that regulatory rules will almost certainly be needed to make a meaningful reduction in the long term.

The costs to the food industry in terms of retooling production lines, customer loss due to taste alteration, and the loss of shelf life of some products will make top-down regulations essential to push manufactures into healthy compliance, Willis said.

As well, he said, some processed foods use such poor quality ingredients that they are only palatable with the addition of large quantities of salt.

The 25-member working group, lead by Health Canada, is comprised of health researchers and professionals, health-focused and consumer non-government organizations, the food manufacturing and food service industry and government.

Dr. Peter Liu, head of cardiovascular health at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and a member of the working group, said voluntary guidelines are preferable over strict regulations because they can come into effect immediately and be posted for consumers to see.

Widespread knowledge of recommended sodium levels in targeted food groups will bring public pressure to bear on the companies that make them to comply with the guidelines, Liu said.

“With regulation, it’s a big fight,” he said. “With pushback from industry, that could take three years to enact and that’s three years wasted.”

A Health Canada spokesperson said the agency has not yet completed targets for all food groups. The final list should be finalized by the end of 2010 or beginning of 2011.

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