12/07/2011 04:59 EST | Updated 02/06/2012 05:12 EST

Sodium Intake And Health: Are There Any Easy Answers?


OTTAWA - A report for the federal government suggests Canadians are confused about salt.

The report says many Canadians are in the dark about how much sodium they should consume, and how to go about effectively lowering their intake.

It also says people, when asked what they should restrict as part of a healthy eating plan, are more concerned about limiting fat and calories than sodium.

The findings come from focus groups conducted for Health Canada researchers; a report on the work was released Wednesday as part of the Sodium Reduction Strategy for Canada.

Many researchers and several groups, including the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Stroke Network, are calling for a national policy to reduce sodium content in foods.

The average Canadian consumes about 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, a figure the federal government would like to see lowered to 2,300 milligrams per day by 2016.

Most participants of the focus groups, conducted in June in Halifax, Montreal and Edmonton by the public opinion firm Harris-Decima, agreed that sodium should be reduced -- but only if someone else raised the issue. However, they didn't know how much they were consuming or how much they should consume in a day.

The 2016 target is an interim goal for adults. Healthy children only need 1,000 to 1,500 mg of sodium per day. But some people are lobbying for even lower adult consumption targets, less than 1,500 mg a day.

The target was announced last year, after the release of a report from the Sodium Working Group. The announcement also called for the implementation of voluntary industry targets and for monitoring of sodium reduction.

The researchers found focus group participants were using the terms salt and sodium interchangeably. Sodium is found in processed foods; more than 75 per cent of the sodium Canadians consume comes from processed foods such as cheese, deli meats, pizza, sauces and soups. Pre-packaged foods, ready-to-eat meals, fast foods and restaurant meals are often high in sodium.

The report also found that some people think kosher salt, sea salt, fleur de sel, gourmet salt and smoked salt are healthier when, in fact, they have the same amount of sodium as table salt.

When participants recounted their own efforts to reduce their sodium intake, they reported reducing salt when cooking and not adding salt at the table. A more effective way of bringing down dietary sodium would be to lower consumption of high-sodium products, such as processed foods, the report said.

Many participants expressed surprise that foods such as breads, breakfast cereals and bakery products also contain sodium, even though they don't taste salty or aren't considered to be processed.

Most participants made the connection between sodium intake and high blood pressure, but few could identify any other health-related issues directly related to sodium.

There is a significant body of evidence linking high sodium intake to elevated blood pressure, the leading preventable risk factor for death worldwide. High blood pressure is the major cause of cardiovascular disease and a risk factor for stroke and kidney disease. There is also evidence to suggest a diet high in sodium is a risk factor for osteoporosis, stomach cancer and asthma.