10/17/2013 02:01 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

How Much Salt Should You Eat A Day?

TORONTO - A group that advises doctors on how to best help patients prevent high blood pressure is shaking up its advice on the amount of sodium Canadians should get in their diets.

On Thursday, Hypertension Canada announced it has raised its recommended amount of daily sodium intake for most adults to 2,000 milligrams, the equivalent of roughly five millilitres or one teaspoon of salt.

The organization's recommendations task force — made up of almost 70 doctors, nurses, dietitians and other health professionals from across Canada — decided to raise the daily sodium target to 2,000 mg after reviewing the latest research about the effects of salt on blood pressure.

Previous recommendations advised Canadians aged 14 to 50 to limit their daily sodium consumption to 1,500 mg, those 51 to 70 to aim for 1,300 mg, and those 70 and older to ingest even less — 1,200 mg.

But task force co-chairman Dr. Raj Padwal said research shows that cutting salt intake to even 2,000 mg a day from 3,600 mg can significantly improve blood pressure levels.

"The second reason is that 1,500 or 1,300 or 1,200 ... it's simply not feasible because the average intake in the Canadian population is 3,400 milligrams, which is about a teaspoon and a half of salt."

In 2010, a sodium working group chaired by Health Canada advised Canadian adults to try to cut salt consumption by a third so they could reach a maximum of 2,300 mg a day by 2016. The group said 1,500 mg daily is considered adequate intake.

At the same time, the food and restaurant industries were urged to voluntarily pinch back the sodium in their products. About 75 per cent of sodium in people's diets comes from processed foods, not from sprinkling meals with salt during cooking or at the table.

Padwal, an internal medicine specialist at the University of Alberta, conceded that variations in intake targets from different organizations are likely confusing people, who only want to know how much salt it is safe to consume.

"Others might decide to go with different cutpoints," he said. "Based on our review of the (research) literature, we're very comfortable with this cutpoint and ... the fact that it reduced blood pressure."

Research has suggested that reducing excess dietary sodium could prevent the premature deaths of 30 to 40 Canadians a day from heart disease and stroke, or roughly 11,000 to 15,000 a year.

Keeping blood pressure levels under control helps prevent heart attacks and strokes.

Padwal said it's important for consumers to remember that much of their sodium comes from processed foods, which makes it a hidden source.

"Nobody really eats sodium or even salt," he said. "You don't sit down at your dinner table and portion out your food and have a portion of salt that you scoop into your mouth. You eat food."

That's why another key recommendation from the Hypertension Canada task force is to eat a healthy diet, including high-fibre foods and fresh fruits and vegetables.

"And by doing so, your sodium intake will naturally decline. You don't have to worry about the numbers ... your sodium intake will naturally be around two grams."