The Shakedown on Salt

Canadian food products are among the saltiest in the world and the average Canadian consumes more than double the healthy level of sodium a day.


The Canadian Stroke Network is working to reduce sodium levels in processed, packaged and fast foods because it hopes to prevent strokes in thousands of Canadians.

“When you look at various opportunities to try to reduce hypertension, sodium stands out as being unique,” says Dr. Antoine Hakim, CEO and Scientific Director of the CSN. “The impact willbe at a population level.”

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a treatable condition that leads to more than half of the 50,000 strokes in Canada every year.

One in four adult Canadians has hypertension – about 5.3 million people. A third of those people could eliminate the problem by consuming an Adequate Daily Intake of 1,200-1,500 mg a day of dietary sodium.

But cutting sodium intake is a difficult thing. Sodium is hidden in much of the food that we eat – even in seemingly healthy things like cereal, breads, vegetable soups and muffins. It is a cheap preservative and flavor enhancer for products that don’t always contain top-quality ingredients. In processed meats, it is used to bind water to boost the weight of the product.

According to recent surveys, Canadian food products are among the saltiest in the world and the average Canadian consumes more than double the healthy level of sodium a day.

The Canadian Stroke Network (CSN) wants to flush high salt levels from our food supply.

The Network took up the sodium issue in 2005 when it initiated discussions with University of Calgary hypertension expert Dr. Norm Campbell, who was later awarded the CIHR Chair in Hypertension Prevention and Control.

Next, CSN management reviewed the evidence around sodium and began to urge Health Canada to include warnings about sodium in Canada’s Food Guide.

“Working with our partners, we were successful in convincing Health Canada officials that, for the first time, sodium should be included in the new Food Guide,” says CSN Executive Director Katie Lafferty.

The CSN also contacted news media about the issue and highlighted the health risks associated with “hidden salt.”

Together with Blood Pressure Canada, the CSN partnered with UK-based World Action on Salt and Health (WASH) on international efforts, including publicizing a country-by-country comparison on salt levels in processed foods.

On the national scene, the Network supported the formation of the Sodium Strategic Planning Committee, which brought together health groups to discuss the issue. And, it was a leader in the formation of a National Sodium Task Force to meet with food industry officials. Dr. Kevin Willis, CSN director of partnerships, took an active role.

In 2007, WASH president Dr. Graham MacGregor spoke at the CSN annual meeting and highlighted the latest research evidence on sodium risks.

Later, the Network coordinated media coverage around a National Sodium Policy statement for Canada, released by 17 health groups and professional associations, and welcomed the appointment of a federal working group, established by then Health Minister, Tony Clement to study the issue.

“By cutting hidden salt in processed foods, we will not only make an impact on the incidence of stroke but also other health conditions, including heart and kidney diseases, stomach cancer and dementia,” Dr. Hakim says. “Reducing the sodium in our food supply will have a dramatic impact on the burden of chronic disease in Canada.