Too much sodium can have serious long-term health effects. But many Canadians don't realize they regularly consume dangerous levels of salt on a daily basis.
That's because most of the sodium we consume is added to food products, such as sauces, canned vegetables, and salad dressings, before we take them home. About 80 per cent of our sodium intake comes from packaged or processed foods.
Now, a group of researchers has created a tool to help Canadians understand how much salt they're getting and the biggest sources. Researchers from the University of Toronto, the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences have developed an online salt calculator at projectbiglife.ca. It asks users a series of questions, such as how often they eat out, how many times a week they consume frozen or canned dishes and how often they use condiments in their meals, to estimate total sodium consumption.
The tool also provides users with a comprehensive breakdown of where the sodium in their diet comes from, which can be very enlightening for the many Canadians who don't know that certain items are very high in salt, said JoAnne Arcand, a post-doctoral fellow in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto. The calculator was created using Canadian data about food consumption habits for a variety of different age groups. Arcand said it's accurate for individuals aged four and older.
"We're trying to debunk some of the myths that commonly accompany sodium by showing people there are several sources of sodium in their diet," said Arcand, who was one of the developers of the calculator.
Sodium has emerged as one of the biggest public health issues in recent years. The average Canadian consumes 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day. The recommended intake for people between nine and 50 is 1,500 milligrams and the upper tolerable limit — beyond which the risk of health problems starts to increase — is 2,300 milligrams.
The concern is that a diet high in sodium is a major risk factor for high blood pressure, which can lead to heart attack, stroke and other serious health problems. High sodium intake has also been linked to osteoporosis, stomach cancer and kidney problems. Sodium is a controllable risk factor for these problems, which is why so many health professionals are urging governments to take action on the issue.
Although the federal government created a task force to address the issue of sodium reduction, it later disbanded the group and failed to adopt many of its recommendations. Currently, the government is focusing on asking food manufacturers to adhere to voluntary sodium reduction guidelines. But many critics point out the government guidelines would still enable food manufacturers to sell items that are fairly high in sodium. And because the guidelines are voluntary, there are major fears they will never really take off.
However, many food companies have pledged support for sodium reduction initiatives and have made some changes that suggest small progress is being made.