Health Canada takes on sodium, but are Canadians hooked on salt?

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Photo: Leonid Mamchenkov/Flickr

In February, the Trudeau government announced that it would introduce legislation to oblige food manufacturers to clearly label the salt, sodium, fat and sugar content on their products. Health Canada is now consulting as to which type of label to use.

In 2012, the Harper government brought in voluntary guidelines to significantly reduce the salt/sodium content of processed foods, but earlier this year Health Canada concluded that the results were disappointing in the extreme.

Most of the processed food categories the government had identified -- such as cheeses, baked goods, cereals and salad dressings -- did not come near to meeting the voluntary sodium reduction targets. Nearly half, 48 per cent, showed no reduction at all, while only 14 per cent fully met the targets.

So much for voluntary guidelines.

If we made elimination of second-hand smoke voluntary, it would probably be nearly impossible to find a table in a restaurant that wasn’t enveloped in a cloud of carcinogenic gaseous effluent.

Salt kills via a high blood pressure epidemic

One doctor friend describes salt as the “new tobacco”. Unlike smoking, however, consumption of excess salt does not have second-hand effects. Your partners at dinner can blithely drown their meals in monstrous quantities of salt without it having any effect on your health.

The reason Health Canada wants to reduce sodium consumption is not because of its impact on innocent bystanders. It is because of its effects on the health of sodium consumers themselves.

Here is some of what the federal health ministry has to say about salt:

  • Excess sodium (salt) in the diet causes high blood pressure, an important risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
  • Heart disease and stroke are the leading cause of death in Canada, after cancer.
  • Approximately 25 per cent of Canadians aged 20 years and older have been diagnosed with high blood pressure.
  • Many Canadians have high blood pressure without realizing it. It develops slowly over time and has no obvious symptoms. It cannot be cured …
  • The World Health Organization has identified reducing sodium intake as one of the most cost-effective measures that countries can take to reduce chronic disease.

Harvard University’s School of Public Health adds some important detail and nuance to these basic facts. This is what they say:

  • In most people, the kidneys have trouble keeping up with the excess sodium in the bloodstream. As sodium accumulates, the body holds onto water to dilute the sodium.
  • This increases both the amount of fluid surrounding cells and the volume of blood in the bloodstream. Increased blood volume means more work for the heart and more pressure on blood vessels.
  • Over time, the extra work and pressure can stiffen blood vessels, leading to high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. It can also lead to heart failure.
  • There is also some evidence that too much salt can damage the heart, aorta, and kidneys without increasing blood pressure, and that it may be bad for bones, too.
  • High blood pressure is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease. It accounts for two-thirds of all strokes and half of heart disease.

It’s not just a question of a personal ‘salt threshold’

And so, the medically identified danger of excess salt consumption is not only an epidemiological fact; there is a scientific cause-and-effect relationship.

Not everyone is the same, of course. Some can beat the odds.

A few days ago, the Ottawa Citizen featured a long obituary for a World War Two veteran who smoked heavily for many years (until the age of 60) and worked much of his life managing a smoke-filled tavern. He died in his 90s. Medical science measures overall statistics, however, not unusual exceptions.

The Harvard public health folks have elaborated on the nefarious impact of excess salt consumption by comparing our intake of a dangerous common substance (sodium) to a beneficial one (potassium):

“Sodium and potassium have opposite effects on heart health. High salt intake increases blood pressure, while high potassium intake can help relax blood vessels and decrease blood pressure. Our bodies need far more potassium than sodium each day, but the typical U.S. diet is just the opposite. Americans average about 3,300 milligrams of sodium per day, while only getting about 2,900 milligrams of potassium each day.”

A number of years ago, I dined at Rundles in Stratford, Ontario, which is now closed, but which, for years, offered high quality cuisine in a part of the country better known for soliloquies than sous vide.

There was much to recommend on Rundles varied and interesting menu. I made the mistake, however, of ordering the fish of the day, which they prepared, for some inexplicable reason, with cracklings of chorizo sausage. The taste was eminently describable: über salty.

I complained that although I could detect a tasty and very fresh fish that might be wonderful if served less adulterated, I found the dish to be, quite literally, inedible. They brought me another version of the same dish -- sadly, equally salty. I had been so looking forward to it because, in fact, I love fresh fish.

The celebrity chef, whose book was prominently displayed in the front window, came out to talk with me, a bit chagrined that I didn’t appreciate his artistry.

“It tastes like fast food.” I explained, and added, “Customers brought up on too much Kraft Dinner and too many Happy Meals might have such corrupted palates that this is what they actually like.”

“Well,” the chef answered, “everybody has a different salt threshold.” He then instructed the waitress to make sure I was not charged for the dish.

It turns out that it is not just a question of taste or one’s personal salt threshold. As with the pain of a cut, your body is sending you a message when it reacts negatively to excess salt, and the message is: “This is bad for me. Please stop making me sick.”

Unfortunately, the predations of a heedless food industry have so corrupted our perception of what is good and tasty that, too often, our bodies no longer send us the warning signs when we ingest excessive sodium.

Health Canada will have a hard time convincing Canadians to change their eating habits as long as consumers remain hooked on the sodium with which industry liberally laces its products. 

Photo: Leonid Mamchenkov/Flickr

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