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Poll finds little support for sodium law, but some are skeptical


A recent survey by Food and Consumer Products of Canada suggests that, when it comes to sodium, Canadians want the government out of their kitchens.

The poll was published last Thursday, one day before NDP MP Libby Davies’ tough-on-salt bill had its second reading in the House of Commons.

According to an FCPC release, 60 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement: “Every time the government tries to regulate peoples’ choices it ends up costing taxpayers a lot of money and it only makes things worse. People are able to make food choices for themselves.”

The association, for its part, is opposed to regulating sodium content in food and drinks in part because of “resource issues,” says Phyllis Tanaka, VP of scientific and regulatory affairs for FCPC.

Davies’ private member’s bill would require food manufacturers to either reduce the sodium in their products or place a label on the front of the package indicating the food is high in sodium.

Though the FCPC is “absolutely committed” to sodium reduction, Tanaka says implementing regulations is a "timely and costly process" for the government. She also adds: “There is still a need for further research into technical tools that will help industry reduce sodium in processed foods while maintaining the integrity of the food itself.”

Tanaka points to cheese and bread as examples. “Sodium is integral to the character of those products. So to find a way to reduce sodium and keep the quality of those products is something that will take time.”

Canadians' salt intake too high

Manuel Arango, the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s director of health policy, questions FCPC’s poll (which was conducted online with 1,505 respondents across Canada).

“We know that Canadians are very supportive of a lot of interventions to improve nutrition and to combat obesity,” he says.

Desiree Nielsen, a registered dietitian and regular Canadian Grocer blogger, also says consumers generally believe the government “should and will regulate substances that might harm us, as witnessed by the support for the ban on BPA in products.”

And there's no questioning that sodium can be harmful. Arango and Nielsen both point out that high sodium intake can result in high blood pressure–a key risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

Canadians currently consume 3,400 mg of sodium a day–almost double the amount they require. Seventy-seven per cent of that comes from prepackaged foods. According to Health Canada’s Guidance for the Food Industry on Reducing Sodium in Processed Foods, lowering the sodium content in those products will help “will greatly help meet the goal of reducing the population’s average sodium intake.”

Path forward

The Heart and Stroke’s Arango says that while his organization “applauds” Davies for her efforts to reduce sodium levels in processed foods, her bill doesn’t quite hit the mark.

“We have to be realistic in terms of how sodium reduction can be done,” he says. “In the current environment, the best way to do it is through a monitoring program, and working with the food industry.”

As proof, Arango points to trans fats, which are sometimes added to products to extend their shelf life. The government could have developed tough rules regulating the amount of trans fats in processed foods.

But instead, Health Canada implemented a two-year monitoring program. According to Arango, that program was a “huge contributor” to the 60 per cent reduction in trans fat levels in food between the mid-1990s and 2009.

Health Canada would like to see Canadians reduce their sodium intake by 30 per cent to 2,300 mg a day by 2016. That’s when the industry’s progress will be reviewed and the Canadian Community Health Survey, which studies eating habits, will be complete.

Tanaka says at that point, “if we’re not progressing the way we think we should, would regulation help?”

Until then, she says the government should “respect the process” already in place.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said Friday the government will oppose Davies’ bill, according to the Calgary Herald.

Though the Liberal caucus is expected to vote in favour of bill C-460, the NDP will need the support of some Tory backbenchers to secure its passage.

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