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Retailers, food processors react to sodium reduction results

Study shows food is too salty, but FCPC and RCC applaud industry progress

Canada’s voluntary approach to sodium reduction in packaged foods hasn't reached benchmark targets, according to the results of the first scientific evaluation of the six-year federal initiative.

But spokespersons for two of Canada's largest retail and food processing associations say the study results are more a reason to celebrate than a cause for concern.

"Clearly, challenges remain," Dave Wilkes, senior vice-president of grocery and government relations with the Retail Council of Canada, told Canadian Grocer. "But we have seen significant progress over a short period of time, and that will continue."

Carried out by a University of Toronto research team, the study was based on a 2013 analysis of more than 16,000 packaged food items that were divided into roughly 100 categories.

"The objective was to evaluate changes in the sodium content of packaged foods, identify categories reduced in sodium, and determine the proportion meeting Health Canada’s sodium reduction benchmarks In 2010, as part of a national sodium reduction strategy," reads the study.

The goal of the federal program was to gradually reduce Canadians’ average daily intake of sodium by one third (from 3,400 mg a day to 2,300 mg) by the end of 2016.

However, the Sodium Working Group that established the benchmarks was later disbanded, and no federal or provincial group has monitored the food industry’s progress in sodium reduction—until now.

Published this week in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, the U of T study found that only 16% of food categories analyzed had reduced sodium content between 2010 and 2013.

The most significant reductions—between 10% and 30%—were registered among popular staple food items like breakfast cereals and canned soups and vegetables.

Other popular high-salt food items—notably bread, sausages and wieners—had reductions of less than 10%.

Others, including deli meats, had virtually no reductions in salt.

"Though some progress has been made in various sectors, this data supports the need for continued efforts by the food industry in lowering the sodium content of packaged food items and for continued monitoring of this progress as foods are reformulated to meet the 2016 benchmark targets," the study concludes.

According to Wilkes, the study paints both a realistic and positive portrait of the food industry's ability to adapt to growing public concern about the health risks from salt.

He noted for example that some of the biggest drops in sodium were found in reformulated products.

"We had a lot of rapid change in only three years, and that innovation has continued," he said.  "There are a lot of smart people in the food industry."

Phylis Tanaka agrees.  The senior advisor, food and nutrition, at Food & Consumer Products of Canada, and a member of the federal Sodium Working Group that helped to set the reduction benchmarks, she calls the U of T study "a snapshot in time" that provides a wealth of data.

"It shows that there has been some progress, but that challenges remain that must be addressed," said Tanaka.

She added that the situation has likely improved since 2013, since it takes 28 months to bring new or reformulated products from the development stage to grocery store shelves.

"It's a stealth system in that small reductions are made over time to allow consumers to adapt to changes in products," said Tanaka.

She added that reducing or even eliminating sodium is never easy, and is even a safety concern in some products, notably processed meats and charcuterie.

"Food manufacturers have a vested interest in producing healthier products," said Tanaka.  "Sodium reduction remains a work in progress."

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