Friday, July 24, 2009
Right after this week's report on the 2008 listeriosis outbreak, Canadians learned Wednesday of another dangerous substance in our food. This one kills far more Canadians than listeriosis. It's past time to do something about our over-salty diet.
Nobody denies that excess sodium from salt contributes to high blood pressure, linked directly to heart attack and stroke.
Nutrition labels on packaged food reveal how much salt lurks in how many foods: canned pork-and-beans, diet foods, even cereals marketed as healthy. Now a new international study tells us that many fast-food and packaged products sold in Canada have much more sodium than same-brand products elsewhere. Your bowl of Kellogg's All-Bran cereal, for example, has 620 milligrams of sodium, over a third of the recommended total daily intake for anyone age 9 to age 50. A bowl of the U.S. version of that product has only 160 mg of sodium.
World Action on Salt and Health, a medical advocacy group, checked some food products sold in various countries and found that in many cases, Canadian versions were the saltiest. Marketers offer what sells, so we can presume that Canadians just love salt. And processed food, too. Author Michael Pollan's lapidary dietary advice - "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants" - is not exactly the Canadian way.
None of this is news. In 2007 Tony Clement, then federal health minister, convened a Sodium Working Group to tackle this "silent invader of our food supply." So far it has accomplished nothing anyone can detect.
Public and media attention are naturally drawn to something like the listeriosis outbreak, which killed 22. But Canadians remain complacent, or ignorant, about how excess salt drives up heart attack and stroke rates.
Research published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, and other expert views, say publishing guidelines and running a public education campaign will not solve this problem. That leaves government action, starting with food companies.
The United Kingdom has done well in this regard. There a Food Standards Agency set out early in this decade to reduce average salt consumption by 40 per cent by 2012; the agency is said to be on track to meet that goal. It consults stakeholders and then sets successive "voluntary" targets, and presses food processors and restaurant chains to meet them. Results have been impressive already.
If they can do it, so can we. Canada should be moving much more quickly against this menace that lurks in our food.
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2009