Voluntary sodium targets for the food industry have failed to significantly reduce the amount of salt consumers are getting in processed foods, suggesting additional measures are needed, Health Canada says.
Four years ago, the federal department introduced phased-in targets for cutting sodium in 94 categories of processed food, with the goal of meeting that objective by the end of 2016.
But a Health Canada report shows the food industry made no meaningful progress in curtailing salt levels in 45 of those categories (48 per cent) — based on a 2017 evaluation of about 10,500 sample products. In six of those categories, sodium content actually increased.
In all, products in only 14 per cent of the categories hit their targets, the report found.
“This is a release that shows, somewhat dismally, that industry really did not reduce their products down to the target and timelines that were indicated,” Dr. Norm Campbell, a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary, said Tuesday.
Campbell was a member of the federally established Sodium Working Group, which made a number of recommendations in 2010 for lowering salt in Canadians’ diets, including the use of incremental voluntary reductions.
The goal was to start by cutting the average per capita intake of salt to 2,300 milligrams a day by the end of 2016, although 1,500 milligrams is considered ideal for maintaining good health.
However, statistics show that about 80 per cent of Canadians consume more than 2,300 mg daily, with 93 per cent of children aged four to eight and 97 per cent of teenaged boys also exceeding the recommended sodium intake. In fact, the average Canadian ingests an average about 3,400 mg of sodium each day.
Processed foods account for 77 per cent of dietary sodium intake, with breads, processed meats, soups, cheeses, mixed dishes and sauces the top contributors.
“Ingesting excess sodium puts Canadians at risk for high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease, stroke and kidney disease,” said Campbell, a founding member of Hypertension Canada.
More than 7.5 million Canadians have high blood pressure, or hypertension, and about one-third of those cases can be attributed to salt in the diet, he said, noting that dietary sodium is responsible for an estimated 10,000 deaths in Canada each year.
Health Canada saidadditional measures are needed to lower sodium in processed foods, and it will be proposing regulations to make it easier for consumers to make healthier choices.
That could include an ongoing monitoring program and front-of-package nutrition labelling, restrictions on marketing to children under age 13, and a requirement that food manufacturers make public commitments to salt reduction.
“Health Canada is planning to propose a regulatory approach that would require a symbol on the front of packaged foods that are high in sodium, sugars and/or saturated fat,” the report said. ”In addition, it may encourage manufacturers of foods in some of the categories to reformulate their products to contain less sodium and, thus, avoid the requirement to display the symbol.”
The organization representing the country’s food industry said that based on the Health Canada report, it recognizes ”there is still room for improvement” in cutting sodium in products.
“It is important to remember, however, that lowering sodium levels in food and beverage products is a complex undertaking, a balance between technical feasibility and consumer acceptance, requiring both time and flexibility to achieve,” Food and Consumer Products of Canada said in a statement.
“Sodium has a number of uses for which suitable alternatives must be developed. In addition to enhancing taste, sodium plays a functional role in food safety, preservation and texture. … Lowering sodium levels also requires adjusting consumers’ tastes and preferences for sodium, which can often require smaller reductions over time as consumers adapt to each successive reduction.”
Campbell acknowledged that Canada’s food system is highly complex, but he said some countries have succeeded in getting manufacturers to decrease salt content in processed foods.
“In the U.K., they have a very strong advocacy group that does a lot of naming and shaming, and they’ve also had very close monitoring and oversight from their government, with the threat of regulations,” he said.
Argentina gave its food industry voluntary targets, but said regulation would occur if those goals weren’t achieved within a specified period, giving producers the flexibility to choose how to implement changes.
“That’s my favourite approach and that’s currently the one that I would recommend to (the government),” Campbell said. “I think we want our industry to have flexibility, but we also want them to get the job done.”
Sheryl Ubelacker, The Canadian Press