Not all tomato sauces are created equal.
Neither are breads, cereals, cheeses, fish or a host of other grocery-store staples.
Various brands of comparable food products sold in grocery stores across Canada contain hundreds more milligrams of sodium per serving than their competitors, creating wide discrepancies that are helping to fuel excessive salt consumption, according to a report being published today.
The finding that some food products contain substantially more - or less - salt than a competitor's is significant because it proves that, contrary to arguments from the food industry, it is possible for all manufacturers to market lower-sodium versions of their products, the study said.
"We hope that companies begin to acknowledge that it is plainly possible to reduce the amount of salt added to food without jeopardizing the preservation of the food, or the taste, or some of these other functional characteristics," said Bill Jeffery, co-author of the report and national co-ordinator of the Canadian branch of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group that published it.
The report comes as the federal government faces growing pressure to create a sodium-reduction plan to tackle what many experts see as one of the most urgent public-health matters facing Canada.
"It's difficult to imagine another substance to which more attention should be devoted than this," Mr. Jeffery said.
The report compares sodium levels in similar types of more than 300 food items sold at grocery stores or restaurant chains in Canada. It found that some items have over 200 per cent more sodium per serving than similar items sold by a competitor.
For instance, a half cup of President's Choice seven-vegetable primavera sauce has 600 milligrams of sodium, while President's Choice Blue Menu primavera sauce has 120 milligrams. Weight Watchers' whole wheat bread has 275 milligrams of sodium per 50-gram serving, while Dempster's Healthy Way bread has 130 milligrams.
While the report singled out companies selling products with high levels of sodium, Mr. Jeffery acknowledged that some have also begun offering lower-salt products, a trend he hopes will eventually lead to the replacement of high-salt items on store shelves.
To ascertain sodium levels in grocery-store items, researchers used information provided on nutrition facts labels. For restaurant items, researchers used information provided by the companies.
They calculated the sodium content of each item to fit a uniform serving size in each product category, to ensure accuracy of comparison.
The findings demonstrate that "many companies are able to make food with much smaller amounts of sodium than their competitors," a fact that provides impetus for federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq to make sodium reduction a priority issue, the report said.
The report makes several other strong recommendations to address the sodium issue, such as:
Health Canada should set sodium-reduction targets for different food categories and continuously monitor sodium levels over time to measure progress;
Food manufacturers should begin reducing sodium in their products immediately, instead of waiting for government intervention, as a way of benefiting the health of their customers;
Warning labels should be required for products that contain an excessive amount of sodium.
On average, Canadians of all age groups consume 3,092 milligrams of sodium a day - more than double the daily recommended amount for adults.
Excessive sodium consumption can lead to high blood pressure, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke, leading killers in Canada.
Although some people, including certain ethnic groups, are more likely to develop high blood pressure than others, everyone is at risk as they age. More than 90 per cent of Canadians who live to about 80 will develop high blood pressure unless they take precautionary measures, such as sodium control and exercise, according to Blood Pressure Canada.
But the problem isn't about the salt shaker. Up to 80 per cent of the sodium Canadians consume comes from packaged or processed food, including whole-grain breads, fat-free salad dressings, canned vegetables and premade soups.
That's prompted a growing chorus of medical experts and advocates, such as Mr. Jeffery, to urge the government to persuade - or even force - industry into lowering the amount of salt they put in their products.
Many food products appear similar, but they may contain drastically different sodium levels:!
Pasta sauce !
125 millilitres of Antico Organic tomato and basil pasta sauce contains 710 milligrams of sodium; the same amount of Classico tomato and basil sauce has 320 milligrams.!
Cereal bars !
40 grams of Kellogg's Special K strawberry cereal bar contains 165 milligrams of sodium; the same amount of Kellogg Nutri-Grain strawberry cereal bar has 105 milligrams
30 millilitres of Kraft Rancher's Choice fat-free ranch salad dressing contains 340 milligrams of sodium; the same amount of President's Choice ranch dressing has 260 milligrams.!
54 grams of Maple Leaf bacon contain 445 milligrams of sodium; the same amount of Shopsy's Deli Trim bacon has 310 milligrams.!
Snack crackers !
20 grams of Christie Cheese Bits crackers contain 250 milligrams of sodium; the same amount of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish cheese trio crackers has 160 milligrams.!