Reducing salt in the Canadian diet should be as much of a public-health priority as cutting obesity, in light of new findings about the huge benefits of successful reductions. Some political leadership, long missing, is needed on salt.
Fighting excessive salt intake makes at least as much sense as fighting obesity, not only because it is manifestly easier to do, on a population-wide basis, but also because the effects of a successful campaign to reduce salt would be comparably large. "The cardiovascular benefits of reduced salt intake are on par with the benefits of population-wide reductions in tobacco use, obesity and cholesterol levels," says a study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine.
That is a startling statement. It suggests our public-health priorities are misplaced, or at least, badly incomplete. According to the study, a reduction of three grams of salt a day would have health benefits equal to those from a 50-per-cent reduction in tobacco use or a 5-per-cent reduction in body-mass index among obese adults. A three-gram reduction would be roughly 30 per cent of current salt intake. Even a one-gram reduction would lower blood pressure, save thousands of lives and prevent thousands of strokes and heart attacks, in all ages, the study says. Not to mention billions of dollars in health-care costs.
And where is the Canadian government in all this? The Sodium Working Group, set up by Health Canada with industry, health and government representatives, has little to show for two years of existence. It might as well be renamed the Sodium Extended Holiday Group. And who is holding the group's feet to the fire? Not the Minister of Health, Leona Aglukkaq.
Meanwhile, much of the world is taking action. The United Kingdom, Japan, Finland and Portugal are cited favourably in the journal study for reducing salt intake through a combination of regulating salt in processed foods (the source of 80 per cent of salt intake), better labelling and public education. New York has just issued voluntary guidelines for restaurants and packaged foods to reduce salt by 25 per cent over five years. Britain showed that when such voluntary cuts are done a little at a time, the consumer's palate becomes accustomed to it, and industry doesn't suffer.
The obesity problem is hard to budge; changing behaviour, as the New England Journal article says, is notoriously difficult. But reducing salt in packaged foods is doable. Canada's political and public-health leaders need to get working on it.