Fast-food companies that serve burgers, fries and pizza are foisting great gobs of salt on Canadians and, it turns out, much smaller gobs on consumers in other countries. A few conclusions are inescapable: Multinationals are exposing Canadians to cardiovascular health risks that they are not exposing others to. Salt in food can be reduced somewhat, without turning off consumers. Regulatory environments and public pressure matter.
Canadians surely realize that McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Domino’s Pizza, Subway and Pizza Hut do not, by and large, serve health food. But they are probably not aware that these establishments are regularly imposing greater amounts of salt on them than on patrons in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, France and the United Kingdom, as a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal shows.
The Canadian government’s handling of salt has been a disappointment. Prime Minister Stephen Harper listed the setting of a national salt-reduction goal as one of his major accomplishments of 2010. But no plan to achieve that goal has gotten traction within Health Canada. Even voluntary rules involving the setting of maximums by category, or weighted to reflect the average of all products sold within a category, are seen as too onerous for industry.
The United Kingdom has achieved, over time, 40-per-cent reductions in sodium levels in some packaged foods, by creating voluntary maximums by food category. In the United States, the National Salt Reduction Initiative, a coalition of local and state governments and health groups, works with the food industry to reduce salt in packaged and restaurant foods. “In the right regulatory environment,” the CMAJ study says, “fast food companies could substantially reduce the salt in their products, translating to large gains for population health.”
Canadian consumers love their salty foods. It’s unrealistic to expect individual companies to change on their own, while the competition goes blithely along. Government should be trying to prod industry-wide, gradual change because without government, that change won’t happen.