Jun 05,2016
By Bill Jeffery, BA, LLB

Our food supply is still salty to a fault

It takes some doing to earn the reputation of public health enemy number 1. Certainly, there are plenty of contenders in the food we eat. Poor diet kills more Canadians than any other risk factor, including tobacco — nearly 51,000 deaths in 2013, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington.

But, gram for gram, sodium has no rival. According to the IHME’s Global Burden of Disease database, diets high in sodium killed an estimated 10,359 Canadians in 2013. Health Canada says we eat double the recommended amount of sodium, most of it derived from processed foods from restaurants and manufacturing plants but also from bread, low-fat deli meats and other foods that consumers often assume are harmless.

In late 2007, the health minister at the time struck an expert group to hatch a plan to reduce sodium consumption. These university scientists, industry lobbyists, government officials and health advocates deliberated, researched and interviewed experts for more than two years. In July 2010, the Sodium Working Group (SWG) published a series of recommendations to change nutrition labelling regulations and Canada’s Food Guide advice and to urge food companies to meet voluntary sodium-reduction targets and report their progress.

The year dragged on, with no word on implementation. However, the prime minister of the day issued an end-of-year news release, boasting sodium-reduction targets as one of the government’s great achievements in 2010. Then, 2011 dragged on without another word.

In 2012, Health Canada delivered a set of sodium-reduction targets for more than 100 categories of food. But these were voluntary targets, meant to motivate the food industry.

Next, a private member’s bill proposed mandatory implementation of the SWG’s comprehensive recommendations. The bill received support from 70 health groups and sodium experts. When it was put to a vote in 2013, all opposition MPs and one Conservative MP gave their support. But it was defeated.

Just before the 2015 federal election, the Conservative government proposed feeble nutrition labelling reforms that would have put Canada on a snail’s pace trajectory to eventually meet Health Canada’s voluntary targets. To its great credit, the Liberal party campaigned on a promise to fix nutrition labelling and pledged to “bring in tougher regulations…to reduce salt in processed foods.” Now that the Liberals are in power, I have high expectations for them. There’s no time to wait.

In 2013, University of Toronto researchers found that sodium levels in restaurant foods had fallen, on average, a paltry 25 milligrams (about two per cent of the sodium level of a typical restaurant meal) from 2010 to 2013. The SWG’s goal was that by 2013, we would see that Canadians were well on the way to reducing the amount of sodium consumed — from an average of 3,500 mg per day to only 2,300 mg per day.

A second study covering the same period showed that the percentage of grocery foods meeting even the least onerous of Health Canada’s graduated reduction targets rose from 51 per cent to just 58 per cent.

These figures hardly provide evidence of a major transformation of the food supply. Further, results of a study conducted in 2014 showed that hospital foods intended for consumption by patients, staff and visitors failed to meet Health Canada’s sodium recommendations.

Please urge your MP to press Minister of Health Jane Philpott to put a halt to gratuitous pre-salting by restaurants and food companies and to finally implement the advice of the SWG.

Bill Jeffery, BA, LLB, is the executive director of the Centre for Health Science and Law and publisher of the magazine Food for Life Report, which launches in July. He was a member of the Sodium Working Group.

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