Canadians are consuming potentially dangerous amounts of sodium and Ottawa must take action to limit those levels, one expert says.

Marketplace analyzed the daily sodium intake of 80 Canadians and found a great majority are consuming far more than the nutritionally recommended amounts.
High sodium intake is a major health problem in Canada; it’s a leading cause of hypertension, which afflicts one in five Canadians and can lead to obesity, strokes and heart attacks.
Dr. Andrew Pipe of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute says the government needs to step up awareness to combat the problem.

“Our health system as it currently exists is unsustainable,” he told Marketplace co-host Tom Harrington. “We need to more realistically address issues that relates to disease prevention and health promotion. And this is a whole lot more than just fridge magnets that say, ‘Eat less salt.’’”

Dr. Andrew Pipe says ‘alternate strategies are necessary’ to combat Canadians’ high sodium intake. 
Dr. Andrew Pipe says ‘alternate strategies are necessary’ to combat Canadians’ high sodium intake. (CBC)Overall, 99 per cent of those tested consumed more than the daily recommended 1,500 milligrams per day, while 77 per cent exceed the recommended maximum of 2,300 mg.
The average Canadian intake is 3,400 mg per day.

Although the recommended limit of 2,300 is still high, Pipe figures there would be a significant improvement in public health if Canadians could stay closer to that amount.

“If we could get Canadians down to 2,500 mg a day, we should see a substantial reduction, across the population, in the incidence of heart attack and the incidence of stroke,” he said. “We're talking anywhere from 10 to 20 per cent.”

Tests find above-average intake

For its sodium test, Marketplace collected urine samples from a broad spectrum of Canadians, including an Ontario high school class and a B.C. major junior hockey team, with an age range from 16 to 69 years.

Among the study’s findings:
  • 99 per cent of participants exceeded the daily recommended level of sodium of 1,500 mg.
  • Average intake levels were 3,600 mg per day, just over the national average.
  • 88 per cent of men and 65 per cent of women topped the daily maximum recommended amount of 2,300 mg.
  • More than half those tested (51 per cent) exceeded the national average intake.
Ontario resident Chuck Ferguson, who suffers from high blood pressure, found he was also topping the daily recommended maximum and he wasn’t happy to hear it.

“As someone who’s trying to figure out why he has high blood pressure when he exercises and ‘eats healthy’ that’s a big surprise and not a good one,” he said. “We’re supposed to follow Canada’s food guidelines and I kind of pay attention to those. It makes me angry because I’m really trying to look after my heart and that’s perhaps not what I’m ending up doing.”

Sodium sources

Part of the problem is that many Canadians don’t know where all that sodium comes from.
“Canadians believe most of our sodium comes from salt shaker when in fact it’s only about six per cent of daily sodium intake,” Pipe said. “Most of the sodium is from processed foods.”
Pipe says processed foods – which use salt as a preservative, and to retain flavor and colour – account for nearly 80 per cent of Canadians’ sodium intake.
Home economist and labelling expert Allison Jorgens says many shoppers make mistakes by not checking the nutritional information labels, or by assuming some products are healthier.

Nutrition expert Allison Jorgens encourages Canadians to read nutritional information labels closely.Nutrition expert Allison Jorgens encourages Canadians to read nutritional information labels closely. (CBC)

“Become an informed label reader, and really know what to look for on those labels,” she advises. “Check the sodium amount on those labels, and always reference the serving sizes there so that you can put the amount of sodium into perspective.”

Canned vegetables are another surprising source of sodium, as are organic products. Jorgens warns that many organic foods can contain as much, or more sodium than their conventional counterparts.

Government taking sodium seriously?

However, Jorgens warns that those nutrition labels can be “misleading,” particularly in the serving sizes and percentages.

The labels show percentages of recommended daily intake, but those amounts are based on a number higher than the maximum. For example, a label that says one serving equals 10 per cent of your daily sodium intake means it’s 10 per cent of 2,400 mg, much higher than the daily recommended 1,500.

In 2010, the government’s Sodium Working Group recommended that the percentage daily value be changed to reflect 1,500 mg per day. But that group was disbanded in 2011 and the recommendation was never implemented.

The group also proposed to lower public sodium consumption to 2,300 mg per day by 2016.
Last year, Health Canada released a “guidance” document with voluntary guidelines on sodium reduction for the industry.

Ottawa must take stronger action to reduce those numbers, says Pipe.

“The government's approach to this point has been… that the voluntary approach will be effective,” he said. “I don't see the evidence of that frankly, and so I think alternate strategies are necessary.”

Setting voluntary targets is the most effective strategy, argues Dr. Colin Carrie, the parliamentary secretary to Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

“We're taking action to work towards lowering the amounts, but we have to do it in a way that's actually going to work,” he said. “What we've seen is voluntary approaches have worked very well with industry, and we're committed to this approach.”

He says Canada’s goal of 2,300 mg is “going to be the most aggressive in the world.”

Chuck Ferguson thinks the number is still too high, when groups like the World Health Organization call for even lower targets. A January 2013 advisory from the WHO said adults should consume less than 2,000 mg per day.

"I don’t understand why the daily value is so high," he said. “I’d like to meet the person who set 2,300, show them my health chart and say, “What the hell are you doing?’”

Watch Marketplace's episode, The Great Salt Shakedown, Friday at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador).