Health Canada isn’t helping Canadians cut salt intake

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu Apr 19 2012.   Rosie Schwartz

Fast food is packed with sodium — a fact that’s no surprise to most people. But why here in Canada is our fast food even more sodium-laden than in other countries? According to a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets in Canada contain more than twice the amount of salt as they do in Great Britain. It wasn’t that long ago that Canada topped a world-wide list of the amount of sodium in products like breakfast cereals.

Meanwhile, Health Canada has indeed recognized that our sodium-rich foods are putting our health at risk. So what does this government agency do to help Canadians reach recommended targets?

Not much.

True, they did strike an expert committee to deal with our excessive sodium intakes and when the Sodium Working Group came up with hard hitting recommendations, Health Canada disbanded the committee. According to the group’s report, slashing our intake by 1,800 milligrams a day would prevent a staggering 23,500 cardiovascular disease events such as heart attacks and stroke per year. Many of the abandoned recommendations dealt with cutting sodium from processed food, which is where most of the sodium in Canadian diets comes from.

Consider that reducing our intakes would also lead to a whopping savings of $1.38 billion per year in direct health care.

The government’s latest blow for making smart food choices was the news from the recent federal budget that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) will no longer police food labels. It’s just the latest in a number of moves that appear to be putting corporate health before the health of Canadians.

As science shows the importance of healthy eating in both the prevention and treatment of disease, the government has taken away an important weapon in the battle against a variety of diseases. This at a time when the statistics link diet-related stroke, heart disease, cancers, diabetes and obesity to approximately 48,000 deaths annually in Canada.

With the government relinquishing its watchdog status, there is nothing to motivate companies to correct inaccurate and potentially misleading information that may make their products appear healthier.

Take, for example, what happened with a package of jumbo hot dogs brought to me by a client. It was a product with a label listing an incredibly low sodium content. She thought she had made a spectacular nutritional find. But to my expert eye, it made no sense that a hot dog (with added sodium in the ingredient list) could contain less sodium than a comparable amount of raw unseasoned beef. I contacted the company, which flat out denied that its label could be inaccurate. I then filed a complaint with the CFIA. The updated label that resulted from their investigation revealed that the sodium content listed was about 10 times the previous one.

Now there’s no longer anyone to hold companies accountable for providing Canadians with accurate information about the foods they eat.

The government says that it’s a cost-cutting measure but what about the fact that diet-related diseases cost more than $6 billion per year, a number that’s expected to keep rising.

This action is just the tip of the iceberg.

In February, Health Canada shuttered plans to regulate trans fats saying it would be a regulatory burden to food companies. This after their own expert committee recommended legislation, not voluntary action, to rid Canadian foods of this toxic ingredient. Consumption of trans fats is linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and more.

Health Canada also recently allowed caffeine to be added to non-cola soft drinks — an initiative that might yield more caffeine per can than the maximum recommended daily intake for some children.

Their inaction over the past five years in dealing with helping consumers select disease-fighting whole grains is another example. Because of outdated regulations that allow for whole wheat to be refined, yielding a product that is not whole grain, consumers are very confused. They logically think the word whole denotes whole grain, yet a bread that is 100 per cent whole wheat may not be a whole grain.

It’s time for Health Canada to get back to the business of safeguarding our food and health and protecting the money we spend on good nutrition instead of ensuring the food companies a healthy profit.

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and is author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada).

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