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food for thought

Earlier this month, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its first report on global efforts to reduce sodium intake. It turns out, we aren’t doing as well as hoped for.

According to WHO, the world is off-track to achieve agreed upon sodium reduction targets needed to protect against cardiovascular diseases.

Here’s what to know about the WHO Global Report on Sodium Reduction, plus what you can do to reduce sodium in your family’s diet.

Background to the WHO report

It’s well-established that unhealthy diets are a leading cause of chronic disease, in particular cardiovascular disease.

What’s more, the largest number of diet-related deaths is tied to excessive sodium intakes, an established risk factor for elevated blood pressure, heart attack and ischemic stroke. (An ischemic stroke is caused when a blood clot interrupts blood flow to the brain.)

In 2013, all 194 WHO member states committed to reducing sodium intake by 30 per cent by 2025. WHO called on governments to implement policies and action plans to reduce the amount of sodium in processed foods and to educate consumers on choosing foods lower in sodium.

The new report, released on March 9, is the first to document the progress of each WHO member state working toward the 2025 sodium reduction target. Who developed a “Sodium Country Score Card” for each member state based on the type and number of sodium reduction polices in place.

The findings

According to the report the average global sodium intake is 4,310 mg per day, which far exceeds WHO’s daily sodium intake recommendation of less than 2,000 mg.

As of October, 2022, only 5 per cent of WHO Member states (nine countries) received the highest possible score of four. Each had implemented at least two mandatory sodium reduction policies and all of WHO’s recommended sodium-related policies for combatting chronic disease.

Canada received a “country score” of two, meaning the government had implemented voluntary measures either to encourage the food industry to reduce sodium or to encourage consumers to make healthier food choices around sodium. Health Canada has done both.

In July, 2022, Health Canada also regulated front-of-package nutrition labelling to help consumers make healthier food choices around sodium (as well as saturated fat and sugars).

The new mandatory “high-in” label will complement the back-of-package nutrition facts table, mandatory since 2007. It will appear on prepackaged foods that meet or exceed 15 per cent of the daily value (DV) for sodium, saturated fat and/or sugars. Food manufacturers have until Jan. 1, 2026 to comply.

(To receive a score of three, Canada would have needed to implement at least one mandatory policy to reduce sodium in the food supply, e.g., setting maximum sodium content limits in foods, etc.)

Reducing sodium intake at home

Despite Health Canada’s voluntary measures to curb sodium intake, most Canadians (six out of 10) still consume too much sodium, an average of 2,760 mg per day. The amount is even higher among male teens (3,320 mg), as well as males ages 19 to 50.

Canadians are advised to consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day, the amount found in one teaspoon of table salt. People with high blood pressure should limit daily sodium intake to 2,000 mg.

The majority of sodium we consume – 77 per cent – comes from packaged foods and restaurant meals, not the saltshaker.

Bakery products (e.g., bread, muffins, cookies, desserts, crackers granola bars), processed meats (e.g., sausages, deli meats, chicken wings, burgers, meatballs) and mixed meals (e.g., pizza, lasagna, frozen entrees and appetizers, frozen potatoes, prepared salads) account for half of the sodium Canadians consume.

Other big contributors are cheese, soups, sauces and condiments.

Read nutrition labels on packaged and prepared foods. Use the daily value (DV) percentage to get a sense of how much sodium is in one serving of the food product. Five per cent or less of the DV is considered a little; 15 per cent or more is considered a lot.

Make homemade versions of commercial baked goods, pasta sauces and soup to consume less sodium. Instead of deli meats, roast a turkey breast or chicken for sandwiches and salads.

Eat home-prepared meals more often. Salty ingredients and hefty portion sizes mean restaurant meals can be shockingly high in sodium. Ditto for meal kits.

If you use services such as Hello Fresh and Chef’s Plate, for example, read the nutrition information before placing your weekly order. It’s not uncommon for a meal – even ones lower in calories or carbohydrates – to serve up 1,000 to 2,000 mg of sodium (some have even more).

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD.

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