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Food industry struggling to kick the salt habit

UOIT prof part of research showing poor results of government's sodium reduction initiative

JoAnna Arcand, an associate professor in UOIT's Faculty of Health Sciences, says the food industry is not doing enough to cut sodium levels in what we eat.

JoAnna Arcand, an associate professor in UOIT’s Faculty of Health Sciences, says the food industry is not doing enough to cut sodium levels in what we eat.

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

A government program to try and reduce the amount of sodium in our foods is not having the expected results according to a recently released study from the University of Toronto.

In 2010, Health Canada released its Sodium Reduction Strategy, a voluntary program to help the food industry cut the amount of sodium in their products, with benchmarks set to be achieved by the end of 2016.

The recent study, published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, found that only about 16 per cent of food categories had significantly cut their salt content.

“The majority of food categories had no changes,” says JoAnne Arcand, an associate professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology who co-authored the report with a group of professors from the University of Toronto.

“Essentially, this is almost like a progress report for how well the the industry is doing, to see which food categories are changing more quickly than others and how many are changing overall,” Arcand says.

In an analysis of 16,000 different food items available in Canadian grocery stores, it was found that several areas of broadly consumed foods actually saw significant reductions. Condiments, breakfast cereals and canned vegetables all saw reductions of more than 15 per cent.

Overall, by the end of 2016, Health Canada’s benchmarks should see foods reducing their sodium levels by between 25 and 30 per cent.

It’s something Arcand says is going to be challenging for many companies in the industry. Across the board reductions in sodium is essential to public health, with a high sodium intake leading to an increased risk of high blood pressure, which can lead to stroke and heart and kidney disease.

A broad reduction across the entire food spectrum would ensure everyone is affected, as different parts of the population have different eating habits. For example, seniors may consume more soup than children, but children will gobble up more hot dogs.

“If you see a reduction in one and not the other, than that means one of those population subgroups is not going to benefit,” Arcand says.

Arcand says she’s not surprised by the study’s results, as the approach the government has taken has been too “hands-off” and voluntary programs generally take a longer time to see significant change.

In 2007, Canada implemented a program to reduce trans-fats in foods and it wasn’t until between 2010 and 2013 that meaningful change could be seen in the industry.

And even though sodium may be harder to replace when it comes to ingredients than trans-fat, Arcand says it is no excuse for the industry to avoid Health Canada’s benchmarks.

“There’s many different reasons why industry may be saying they’re not reducing sodium, but these benchmark targets were created in consultation with industry so they should be working to achieve them,” she says.

Some in the food industry have also claimed a reduction in sodium would see people steer away from their products for fear of a  different taste. However, Health Canada has covered that as well, suggesting an incremental decrease of approximately 10 per cent sodium over three phases.

“They don’t know that the sodium has been reduced because they can’t taste the difference,” Arcand says of the buyers.

On average, Canadians intake more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day – more than double the recommended 1,500 milligrams a day and well over the daily maximum of 2,300 milligrams set by the Institute of Medicine.