Scientists testifying to a Standing Committee on Health hearing on sodium consumption said Canadians are facing unnecessarily high risks of hypertension, heart disease and even stomach cancer because of excess salt in their diet.
The finger was pointed at food companies. Dr Katherine Gray-Donald, an associate professor at McGill University, told MPs that processed foods are the main source of salt, making it hard for Canadians to reduce their salt consumption to healthy levels.
Nestle and Kellogg representatives defended their products by underlining their commitment to sodium reduction.
Christine Lowry, Kellogg Canada vice president of nutrition and corporate affairs, said breakfast cereals only account for 3 percent of the salt in the Canadian diet but that the company has still made salt reduction a priority.
Lowry told the committee that Kellogg has identified 9 cereals in its Canadian portfolio containing more than 230 mg of sodium. For all these relatively salty products Kellogg plans to cut sodium levels to 200 mg by early 2011.
Both Lowry and Catherine O'Brien, a Nestle director, were keen to emphasize that dramatic sodium reduction cannot be achieved overnight. Time and investment is needed to ensure that products are reformulated so that taste and quality are maintained, and consumers remain loyal.
O’Brien said: “We must balance the push of science with the pull of the market -consumers will simply not compromise on taste, therefore it must be a priority alongside improved health.”
“Hit and miss approach”
These arguments failed to impress many of the MPs at the committee hearing. Some MPs expressed frustration at the slowness of progress on salt reduction and questioned the commitment of the food industry.
Judy Wasylycia-Leis, a New Democrat Party MP, was particularly outspoken in her criticisms of industry, attacking its “hit and miss approach” to salt reduction. Wasylycia-Leis said Canadians are currently consuming 3,500 mg of sodium a day and most of it comes from processed foods. Recommended daily intake is less than half this amount.
She said: “I frankly don’t understand why we’re still here talking about a voluntary approach, why we’re buying the line that the industry is going to just do it.”
Sodium reduction targets will be published next year by the sodium working group, which was set up by government two years ago to coordinate salt reduction efforts. But compliance with these targets will be voluntary.