Sodium reduction targets to be released soon

Canadians eat too much salt and it may be killing us, experts say

Health Canada is preparing to release new guidelines that will suggest a reduction in how much sodium Canadians should consume.

The voluntary guidelines are expected to be announced in mid-July by Health Canada’s sodium working group.

The creation of the group was announced by the federal health minister in October 2007, and members have been working on the guidelines since February 2008.

“We have to have a wholesale change in the food supply in Canada,” said Dr. Hasan Hutchinson, chair of the group and director general of Health Canada’s Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion, Health Products Branch.

Hutchinson updated the media on the group’s progress during a sodium conference in Toronto on Friday.

Canada needs to act on reducing sodium in the food supply because it leads to hypertension and cardiovascular problems, which are the leading cause of death, Hutchinson said.

Health Canada estimates that nine in 10 Canadians will require blood pressure medication at some point in their lives.

The truth about sodium

A 2004 Canadian health survey by Statistics Canada measuring the percentage of total sodium consumed from food sources found that only two per cent came from potato chips and salty snacks.

The biggest offender for adding sodium to diets was bread, at 14 per cent. Also high on the list was processed meats (nine per cent), vegetables, tomatoes and vegetable juices (eight per cent) and soups (seven per cent).

In the average North American diet, 77 per cent of sodium comes from processed food products, 12 per cent occurs naturally in food, six per cent is added at the table and five per cent is added during cooking.

On average, Canadians consume 3,400 mg of sodium per day. The recommended daily intake, called the adequate intake (AI), is 1,500 mg per day. The upper intake level (UI), the most amount of sodium that can be consumed without causing negative health effects, is 2,300 mg per day.

The sodium working group would like to see the average Canadian’s sodium intake be around 2,300 mg per day by 2016.

Lowering sodium harder than it sounds

Unlike other “bad” foods that have recently come under fire — trans fats come to mind — people need salt. The human body does not produce it and sodium is essential in many bodily functions, such as maintaining plasma volume and providing chemical energy for important cellular functions.

Some of the symptoms of having a salt deficiency are dizziness, unconsciousness and in some cases even death.

We need salt, and before processed foods it was often difficult to acquire. The human body has become incredibly efficient at preserving it. The human kidney can filter 575,000 mg of sodium every day and reabsorb 99 per cent of the amount consumed.

Sodium is widely used to preserve food, commonly in canned food and cured meats. Some bacteria, such as E. coli, cannot survive in salty brine. This fuels the argument that drastically reducing sodium in food could be a safety issue.

There is also the issue of convincing food processors and suppliers to voluntarily reduce the amount of sodium in their products. Sodium adds and preserves flavour and texture, something consumers tend to like. Losing the salt could mean losing revenue.

How to reduce sodium in food

Government officials and prominent scientists agree that the only way to bring sodium consumption down to a safe level is to drastically reduce the amount found in the food supply.

The first step toward this will be the sodium working group’s reduction targets. However, this will likely not solve the problem because compliance with the targets is voluntary.

Dr. Kevin Willis of the Canadian Stroke Network believes that the only way to reduce sodium in the food chain is through legislation. Where voluntary participation for the common good may fail, the threat of breaking the law may succeed.

“I would love to say that this is some sort of conspiracy on the part of companies,” said Willis. “But it’s not conspiracy, it’s incompetence.”

Source: CBC News
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