Salt levels still too high in packaged foods

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Researchers are questioning the effectiveness of the current voluntary approach to reducing salt in our food supply, after a study showing that sodium levels are unchanged or only slightly lower in 84 per cent of packaged food groups sold in Canada, measured over a three-year period.

On average, Canadians consume more than twice the recommended intake of sodium, mostly from packaged and prepared foods. Cutting sodium consumed by the population is a public health priority because too much can lead to high blood pressure, a major risk factor for stroke, heart disease and kidney disease.

The national voluntary sodium reduction strategy aimed to reduce average sodium consumption to 2,300 milligrams per day by 2016 or about a teaspoon of salt. Most adults consume a little more than 3,000 milligrams of sodium on average each day.

There are currently no federal or provincial programs to monitor sodium levels or track the food industry’s progress.

To that end, researchers from the University of Toronto and University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa analyzed sodium levels from the nutrition facts table of about 10,000 packaged foods in 2010 and 15,000 foods in 2013.

Overall, the majority of food categories, 84 per cent, had no significant change in sodium between 2010 and 2013, reported Dr. Mary L’Abbé, professor and chair of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto and her co-authors in Tuesday’s issue of the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism.

Some food categories that are high in sodium showed very little progress, such as pantry breads and packaged deli meats, the researchers said. These foods also contribute the most sodium to Canadians’ diets because they are so widely consumed.

But other countries have shown reductions over a similar time period. The study’s authors highlighted how sodium in breads have been reduced by 18 per cent in Argentina and Spain as well as by nine per cent in Australia.

After breads, processed meats are the second greatest contributor of sodium in the diet of Canadians.

Only sausages, wieners, fresh and frozen meat and poultry products had significantly lower levels of sodium in 2013. Importantly, the researchers said, the widely consumed package deli meat category had an “insignificant” 0.9 per cent reduction in average sodium levels. “There is still much progress to be made.”

In Canada, some manufacturers have reformulated products, the researchers said. Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, instant hot cereals, canned vegetables and legumes, plain chips, condiments and imitation and simulated seafood, for example, each reduced sodium by almost 15 per cent or more.

On the other end of the spectrum, some categories, such as soya and oriental sauces, dips and gravies showed significant increases in average sodium levels over the study period.

Continued monitoring needed

Nearly 42 per cent of foods still do not meet any benchmark target, the researchers said in presenting the snapshot of the food industry’s progress.

“Though some progress has been made in various sectors, this data supports the need for continued efforts by the food industry in lowering the sodium content of packaged food items and for continued monitoring,” the study’s authors said.

The minister of health’s mandate letter includes the promotion of public health in part by “bringing in tougher regulations to eliminate trans fats and to reduce salt in processed foods, similar to those in the United States.”

The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research and the Canadian Stroke Network.

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Salt levels still too high in packaged foods

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