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Processed food-makers still not cutting enough salt: Health Canada


Canadian food manufacturers still have a long way to go to meet Ottawa’s lower-sodium targets for processed foods.

That was the message from a Health Canada report released Monday on the voluntary efforts of the industry to reduce sodium in processed foods.

The reduction targets, developed by Health Canada in consultation with the food industry in 2012, were intended to allow for gradual reductions without hurting food safety, quality or customer acceptance.

However, only 14% of 94 food categories met the targets, while “48% did not make any meaningful progress toward sodium reduction,” stated the report. In fact, in several categories sodium levels actually increased.

According to Health Canada’s 2010 “Sodium Reduction Strategy,” about 80% of Canadians consume more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day and the average intake is 3,400 milligrams. Health Canada recommends 1,500 milligrams a day and says negative health effects increase at 2,300 milligrams.

The 2012 targets were an effort to reduce average daily intake to under 2,300 milligrams without “requiring Canadians to make the effort to choose lower sodium foods.” In some categories, such as canned vegetables where sodium is mostly added for taste, the reduction target was 60%. While for others, such as aged cheddar where sodium is more essential, the target was a less ambitious 7%.

 “The reduction of sodium in processed foods was much lower than anticipated,” said the report. “For most food categories, manufacturers did not do enough to reduce sodium levels in the foods that they sell to Canadians.”

However, in some categories—ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, canned vegetables, crackers, breads, soups, bacon and cheeses—manufacturers have made progress. If that progress continues, the targets will be reached, said the report.

The industry is committed to further progress and plans to meet with Health Canada to discuss ways to move forward and overcome barriers to reducing sodium, said Michi Furuya Chang, senior vice-president, nutrition, public and regulatory affairs for Food & Consumer Products of Canada.

“Sodium reduction is really a delicate balance between complexity and still allowing for consumer choice,” she said.

Reducing sodium in existing products is also just one part of a larger strategy to reduce sodium intake that includes alternatives and consumer education, she said. The industry made significant changes in the early 2000s in terms of low-sodium alternatives to popular existing products, she said. Consumers can get an all natural, no sodium, no sugar peanut butter, but many prefer a slightly sweeter or saltier option.

Sodium that has been added only for taste enhancement is easier to remove. But in other categories, sodium has a functional purpose for food safety and texture. “Some of those categories are in fact hitting that technical wall,” she said.

In those cases the industry can only educate consumers about the sodium content and provide alternatives.

“The limited success of the voluntary targets demonstrates that stronger efforts are needed to reduce sodium,” stated the report. “A more structured voluntary approach would increase the likelihood of success. Further options include a regular sodium-monitoring program and public reduction commitments from manufacturers.”

“Regular monitoring was effective in the reduction and virtual elimination of trans fat from the Canadian marketplace,” said Furuya Chang, though regulations to complete the goal of eliminating trans fats were introduced last year. “We could see something similar for sodium whereby specified food categories would undergo regular monitoring for further reductions.”

While calling the results “disappointing,” Kate Comeau of Dietitians of Canada, said her group also understands that reducing sodium “does present challenges to manufacturers.”

“We recognize that reformulating products can't be the only solution,” she said. “We would like to see further reductions, particularly in those categories where no progress was made. But, dietitians are also supportive of initiatives like front of pack labelling, restrictions of marketing of food and beverage to children and efforts of municipal governments to improve the food environment.”

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