Canadians should consume only half the sodium they're now taking in from foods and drinks as part of a multi-pronged approach to cutting salt intake, according to new federal guidelines.

The Sodium Working Group, chaired by Health Canada, released its guidelines in Ottawa on Thursday, after 2½  years of work.

 

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Packaged and processed foods, not the salt shaker, account for 77 per cent of the sodium consumed by Canadians, the group said.

 "This strategy has the potential to save thousands of lives over the coming years that would otherwise be lost to cardiovascular disease, stroke and other ailments," said Mary L'Abbé, vice-chair of the working group and a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto.

On average, Canadians consume about 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day. The guidelines aim to reduce that to 2,300 mg by 2016.

For adults, 1,500 mg of sodium per day is considered an adequate intake and 2,300 mg — about a teaspoon of salt — is the upper limit.

Research suggests reducing the amount of dietary sodium to recommended levels could prevent premature deaths from heart disease and strokes in 30 to 40 Canadians a day — saving 11,000 to 15,000 lives a year.

The report contains six overarching and 27 specific recommendations, including:

  • Support for research.
  • Education and awareness for consumers, industry, health professionals and other key stakeholders.
  • Structured, voluntary reduction of sodium levels in processed foods and foods sold in food service.
  • Developing a plan to monitor and evaluate implementation.

The 25-member panel includes representatives of the food manufacturing and food service industries, health-focused organizations, scientists, consumer groups and government.

The recommendations include:

  • Reduce the Nutrition Facts table's "daily value" for sodium from 2,400 mg to 1,500 mg, mandate standardized serving sizes for reporting nutrition information and improve labels on the front of packages.
  • Mandate sodium and calorie information to be placed prominently at chain restaurants serving standardized fare.
  • Ensure regulatory standards for products like cheese and pickles that include low-sodium salt substitutes.
  • Limit sodium for foods purchased under contract, such as at schools, hospitals and the military.

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq welcomed the report, saying in a statement that the government will work with its partners to assess the recommendations and determine how they can best be addressed in the coming months.

'Lowering sodium to the interim target level set by the working group is uncharted territory for the industry.'—Phyllis Tanaka, Food & Consumer Products of Canada

A major Canadian food industry group called the strategy "the right approach."

For years, the food industry has been developing new products with reduced sodium chloride and reformulated processed foods to reduce sodium levels, said Phyllis Tanaka, vice-president of scientific and regulatory affairs-food policy for Food & Consumer Products of Canada.

"But it's important for Canadians to know that lowering sodium to the interim target level set by the working group is uncharted territory for the industry, so it is going to take time," Tanaka said in a statement.

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The Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, which represents more than 30,000 members across Canada, also said it supported the strategy.

Quick response needed

The report offers sound expert advice that could save lives and protect the public purse, said Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator for the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, in Ottawa.

To show dividends, the advice needs to be acted on by government and food industry, he said.

"There are lots of policy changes that have to be made," Jeffery said. "Health Canada has to finish setting sodium reduction targets and start ponying up."

The food industry uses sodium not only to add flavour, but also as an antibacterial and preservative, said Michael Adams, a professor in the department of pharmacology and toxicology at Queen's University in Kingston.

"We want to have a food supply which nobody has to worry about," Adams said. "To say to somebody overnight to change it down to something that's very, very low and to ask them to engage technologies that they're just not aware of I think is just too much to ask. So this group did the right thing."