For 34 years, Canada didn't know about the salt hazard its people were facing. Now it knows, but at the rate it is moving it will be another 34 years before it does something about it.
From 1970 to 2004, this country did not bother to measure how much salt Canadians ingest. "We had a national nutrition survey in 1970; our next one was in 2004," Katherine Gray-Donald, a McGill University nutritionist, told the Commons health committee this month.
Finland began tackling the issue 30 years ago. It has reduced salt intake by 33 per cent, on average, since then, reduced blood pressure sharply and helped cut deaths from heart attacks and strokes by 75 per cent. Britain has set up an agency dedicated to salt reduction, and has persuaded the food industry to accept voluntary reductions, phased in so consumers won't notice the difference in taste. Canada has the Sodium Working Group, with representatives of the food industry, medicine and government. It takes months to set up a meeting. At the moment its goal seems to be to do more research.
The Canadian government needs to show some motivation. A new study that shows an extra teaspoon a day of salt heightens the risk of stroke by 23 per cent and of heart disease by 17 per cent should give the Sodium Working Group a reason to get out of bed in the morning. The danger was direct. In 13 studies involving 170,000 people between 1996 and 2008, excess salt was directly to blame for more than 10,000 heart attacks and strokes, according to research published last week in the British Medical Journal.
Sodium levels in some food products sold in Canada are much higher than in the same products sold elsewhere. A cup of All-Bran cereal in Canada has 620 milligrams of sodium, compared with just 160 milligrams in the U.S. Canadians should be angry about that. Their government should be angry on their behalf.
"Is our palate different from the Americans' palate?" New Democrat MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis asked incredulously of a Kellogg Canada Inc. spokeswoman at the health committee. Yes, she was told, it is. Unfortunately, though, Canadians hearts are very much the same as those of Americans. Those hearts can take only so much salt.
The food industry is only too happy to take its sweet time to make salt reductions (or "renovations," as the Kellogg spokeswoman calls them). "We must balance the push of science against the pull of the market," a Nestlé Canada spokeswoman told the health committee. Roughly 80 per cent of Canadians' salt intake comes from processed foods. This is where the heart of the problem lies.
The push of common sense, through voluntary reduction targets and clear "stop" signs on salt-drenched foods, should be enough to teach the market to accept less salt, as it did, willingly, in Britain. Government has enough reason to be motivated, and to do the pushing.