Reducing Canadians’ salt intake, a laborious process

Reducing the amount of salt on Canadians’ plates is taking longer than expected. According to a recent report from Health Canada, the food industry failed to meet the targets suggested in 2012. This is a disappointing finding by health organizations, which will still have to be patient.

According to the department’s report, in just five years, only 14% of the industry has managed to reach the targets. “Sodium reduction in processed foods has been much lower than anticipated,” admits Health Canada. The salt content has even increased in some food categories.

On a voluntary basis, the agri-food industry was called in 2012 to help reduce the amount of salt in processed foods, which account for 77% of Canadians’ sodium intake.

But in the eyes of the Quebec Public Health Association (ASPQ), the industry’s efforts to reach the voluntary targets are “to say the least disappointing”.

The same goes for the Dietitians of Canada association. “We were hoping for more positive results. We are disappointed to see the little progress, “responded his spokesman, Kate Comeau.

Salt, which the ASPQ describes as a “new public enemy,” continues to be in excess of the diet of Canadians. According to data compiled in 2004 by Health Canada, the average salt consumption is 3400 mg per day. Normally, it is recommended to consume a maximum of 1500 mg to 2300 mg of salt per day.

Sodium consumption is too high for 80% of Canadians and for 93% of children aged 4 to 8 years.

The department’s action plan, which ultimately addresses the public health challenges of over-salt consumption, was expected to reduce to an average of 2,300 mg per day by the end of 2016, the equivalent of a teaspoon.

Risks related to a salty plate

“An excess of sodium can lead to hypertension, which is a major risk factor for heart disease,” says Dr. Alfred Aziz, Chief of the Division of Regulations and Standards in Nutrition for Health Canada.

Nearly a quarter of Canadians have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The idea is not to play Big Brother and to dictate to people what they should not eat, but to prevent harmful disorders.

Paule Bernier, President of the Professional Order of Dietitians of Quebec.

According to Paule Bernier, President of the Professional Order of Dietitians of Quebec, the Canadian food industry needs to tackle more seriously the reduction of sodium content in its food.

“Salt intake is very much related to stroke. In this sense, I think that processors have a public responsibility, “she said at the microphone of Sur le Vif on Radio-Canada on January 15.

Sodium, a complex nutrient

Health Canada had already seen the disappointing results announced in its last report on the horizon. In 2015, the ministry completed an assessment of 15 of the 94 food categories established in 2012. “We knew there would be challenges,” says Dr. Aziz.

The evaluation of the targets for each category had already been a big job. In addition to the taste, salt goes into the preservation of food.

Another challenge was to take into account the consumption of Canadians. For example, the sodium content of some categories may be higher, but foods are often not on the menu. This is particularly the case of condiments and oriental sauces.

In contrast, other products represent a much lower sodium intake, but are found more regularly on plates, such as bread.

“Sodium is a bit of a complex nutrient, because you still need it to maintain good health,” says Dr. Aziz.

Conscious of the consumption habits and tastes of Canadians, the food industry will not bend on its own to offer duller products overnight, say health organizations.

By giving processors a five-year period to meet the targets, Health Canada hoped that this “step-by-step” approach would not rush consumers.

“The more we eat salty foods, the higher our detection threshold: it takes us even more salt and sodium to taste,” says Bernier.

If the industry had met the targets and gradually lowered the sodium content, “the taste and appreciation of the food should have remained the same, ultimately,” she says.

The ups and downs of volunteer targets

The 2300 mg target appears “realistic” and could be reached, according to Dietitians of Canada, if the ministry is able to implement all of the actions suggested in its 2017 Healthy Eating Strategy.

Health Canada is proposing, among other things, to affix a front-of-package symbol for high-sodium products and to place restrictions on advertisements for “unhealthy” foods and beverages for children. These initiatives are still being discussed with industry.

Since the beginning of the process, the recommended approach is based on the voluntary efforts of the industry, “a major problem” according to Yves G. Jalbert, ASPQ content specialist.

This is the problem: the industry is being asked to self-regulate.

Yves G. Jalbert, content specialist at ASPQ

Dr. Aziz remains confident about the strategy adopted by Health Canada. “Take the example of the United Kingdom. They were the first to put in place a strategy based on voluntary reduction. The approach paid off, but it also had its challenges, “he explains.

Elsewhere in the world, Finland is seen as a leading figure in the fight against sodium reduction in food, which began in the 1980s.

It is difficult not to draw a parallel between the initiatives proposed by Health Canada and the measures adopted in Finland, where the government has put a lot of emphasis on awareness, through major media campaigns, while imposing mandatory labeling on food at home. high salt content.

In 2010, the Government of Canada’s Sodium Task Force highlighted progress in Finland. “The industry has changed the makeup of a variety of product groups to reduce their salt content by about 20 to 25 percent,” he wrote.

“I remain optimistic because of all the measures we are trying to put forward. Much progress is yet to come, “said Dr. Aziz, recalling that the initiatives must come into effect by the end of the Liberal mandate in Ottawa.

Health organizations are waiting for the results of data collected in 2015 by Health Canada, which will give Canadians a better idea of ​​how much sodium they eat so far. But it’s a safe bet that habits will not have changed much, says Dietitians of Canada spokesperson Kate Comeau.

In the future, Health Canada will meet with industry representatives and scientific experts to discuss the poor performance of processors. The voluntary targets requested from industry could be modified accordingly, according to Dr. Aziz.

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