A new study says that a national strategy to reduce Canadians' consumption of sodium is failing to limit its presence in packaged foods and the effort could fall short of its 2016 targets.

In 2010, Canada released its sodium reduction strategy, which was meant to address the high levels of sodium found in Canadians’ diets. Its stated goal was to lower the daily intake of the element to below 2,300 milligrams among 95 per cent of the population

Health Canada says Canadians currently consume about 3,400 mg of sodium every day, which is more than double the recommended 1,500 mg for adults between the ages of 14 and 50.

A daily amount of 2,300 mg is considered a tolerable upper intake level for that age group.

Despite the fact that the human body requires sodium to help control blood pressure and volume, as well as maintain muscles and nerves, high levels of the element can lead to high blood pressure. Sodium is also a major risk factor for stroke, as well as heart and kidney disease.

Sodium intake has also been linked to an increased risk of osteoporosis, stomach cancer and can affect the severity of asthma.

The national reduction strategy opted for a "voluntary reduction" of sodium levels in food and processed products, while also promoting education and awareness of consumers, the food industry and health professionals. It also recommended further research initiatives.

But research published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism on Tuesday said that at its halfway mark, the strategy has failed to make a dent in the amount of sodium found in packaged foods, where the majority of Canadians receive their dietary sodium.

The study, which was undertaken at the University of Toronto, found that as of 2013, 84 per cent of packaged foods had seen "little or no sodium reduction" since 2010.

"Many Canadians do not know where the excess sodium in their diet is coming from and the food industry has a lot of progress to make to meet the proposed benchmark target of a 25 to 30 per cent overall sodium reduction by 2016," Mary L'Abbe, one of the study's authors and chair of the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, said in a press release.

However, the study did find that some packaged foods had made "excellent progress" in reducing sodium levels, including:

  • Imitation seafood
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Canned vegetables/legumes
  • Plain chips
  • Hot cereals
  • Meat substitutes
  • Canned condensed soups
  • Sausages and wieners

"Despite reductions in these select food categories, our research shows that 84 per cent of food categories have had little or no change between 2010 and 2013, with some food categories that are high in sodium showing very little progress, specifically pantry breads and packaged deli meats, which are foods that contribute the most sodium to Canadians' diets" said L'Abbé.

L'Abbe added that the research is "especially crucial" in the absence of a federal or provincial sodium-monitoring program, and in light of the fact that Health Canada has not published any interim reports on the food industry's progress.

The researchers also suggest their findings raise questions about the "effectiveness and sustainability of a voluntary approach" to reducing sodium levels in packaged foods, without other "complementary policies or programs."

In comparison, they attribute the success of Canada's voluntary trans fat reduction efforts to Health Canada's monitoring program, which included periodic analysis and public reporting.

A recent assessment showed that 97 per cent of packaged and restaurant food in Canada fell within the recommended trans fat limits.

JoAnne Arcand, assistant professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and one of the study's authors, said the "minor change" in sodium levels in foods found on grocery store shelves across the country means that Canadians will have to continue to shop smart in order to reduce their consumption.

She added that the study's findings should prompt the government to institute new measures to reduce sodium intake, in addition to its voluntary approach.

"This minimal change should also trigger the government to consider combining other types of policies levers with their voluntary approach to sodium reduction, such as a planned, periodic public monitoring program, like the one implemented to reduce trans fat, and regulatory approaches if that is ineffective," Arcand said in the press release.