Balance salt & sensibility

Many Canadian food manufacturers who are under political pressure to reduce the salt content of their products believe Canadian consumers are to blame for the prevalence of salty foods, the Globe and Mail reported Nov. 19.

Catherine O’Brien, director of corporate affairs at Nestlé Canada, said food production companies “must balance the push of science against the pull of the market.” Many companies have seen their consumer activity indicate a desire for salty foods, making low-sodium alternatives a tough sell despite being a healthier choice.

The average Canadian consumes more than double the recommended daily amount of sodium, a phenomenon experts say is partly responsible for raising rates of heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure. According to the World Health Organization, reducing salt in our foods is one of the quickest and most economically viable ways to decrease chronic disease rates.

Although low-sodium products are available, manufacturers are right to point out consumers often find the full-salt versions tastier. Seeing a product labeled “low sodium” can be a turnoff for buyers shopping for flavour.

It’s unfortunate the taste for salt has become ingrained in Canadians’ eating habits. But in a culture where processed, packaged goods are essential to lives on the go, our desire for quick, convenient foods makes sodium a mainstay in the modern diet.

Adding salt is one of the least expensive ways to boost flavour in processed goods and, unless our lifestyles change, it’s unlikely our taste for salt will either.

The salt issue is a small facet of the larger problem of how North Americans consume food. Without shifting our eating habits, our health care system faces a major liability.

But while it’s up to citizens and consumers to ultimately make the choice about what they eat, the government should take action to reduce the high sodium content of foods.

Urging manufacturers to gradually reduce the salt content of foods might help wean the population off sodium. Corporations would also do well to market low-sodium products to health-conscious parents of young children, starting the next generation on the right foot.

The government should also play a role in educating the public on how to make healthy choices. Introducing a mandatory nutrition course in high schools would be a good step.

If sodium reduction has the potential to significantly decrease rates of chronic disease in Canada, it’s worth taking an intervention with more than a grain of salt.

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