The federal government needs to stop delaying implementation of broad measures designed to help lower the excessive amount of sodium Canadians consume each day, according to a critical new statement from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.
The average Canadian consumes about 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, more than double the recommended amount of 1,500 milligrams, and significantly higher than the maximum amount of 2,300 milligrams that experts say is safe before the risk of health problems start to rise. On average, children as young as 1 are consuming about double the recommended sodium every day.
The main problem, according to health experts, is the sodium added to processed and packaged foods, such as bread, soup, sauces and salad dressings. About 80 per cent of the sodium Canadians consume is added to these and other packaged products by food companies.
In 2010, a federally-appointed task force made several key recommendations for national sodium reduction, including a goal of lowering average sodium consumption to 2,300 milligrams by 2016.
But achieving that goal hinges on working with the food industry to lower the amount of sodium companies add to their products. And that seems to be where the problem lies.
Even as the task force released its report, it was still debating how to set reduction targets with the food industry. The task force drafted some maximum allowable sodium levels in a variety of food products, but they were never adopted.
Instead, the federal government disbanded the task force earlier this year and gave responsibility for the sodium file to a new group that several experts said had too many ties to the food industry.
Health Canada also proposed new sodium targets for food categories that critics said would allow companies to add high amounts of salt to their products. The new reduction targets would be based on a "sales weighted average," which would allow companies to keep sodium levels higher in some products if they were reduced in others.
The department didn't respond to a question about the status of the proposed targets. In a statement, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said the government is working with industry and others to provide Canadians with information and market choices.
These developments, and recent research questioning the benefits of lowering sodium consumption, prompted the Heart and Stroke Foundation to issue a call urging the government to take action.
"The longer Canada delays measures to reduce dietary sodium, the greater the risk to Canadians," according to the foundation's statement.
Michel Joffres, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University and a spokesman for the foundation, said the government's actions go against the best scientific evidence that lower salt consumption could have major health benefits. Although the food industry has made some steps toward lowering sodium levels in some products, real change can only occur if the government holds them to account, he said.
"[Efforts]have been stalled and they need to get back into action," said Dr. Joffres, who has done extensive research on the health impact of sodium. "But of course, there is no real push for lowering any further sodium in the processed foods, which is the biggest source of sodium intake."
The foundation is also taking aim at several new studies published in recent months that question the benefits of lower sodium intake. For instance, in May, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study that concluded people who eat the highest amounts of sodium were least likely to die from heart disease. But the results were widely panned by members of the medical community, who noted that the study's design was flawed and therefore the results are impossible to take to heart.
The Salt Institute, a lobby organization, has seized on these studies as evidence that the mission to lower sodium is a bad move.
But experts such as Dr. Joffres say consumers should be more swayed by the large body of scientific evidence that shows a diet high in sodium can lead to high blood pressure, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and a host of other health problems. Dr. Joffres said he worries that the future of sodium reduction in Canada will be in question unless the federal government takes action soon.
"My fear … is that they will be slowing down [sodium reduction plans]" he said. "And that is very costly in terms of health impact."