10/17/2013 01:20 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Salt limit raised slightly by blood pressure group

Canadian blood pressure experts are raising the recommended level of dietary sodium, which could have implications for consumers and the food industry.

Hypertension Canada’s education task force completed its annual review of the scientific evidence on sodium intake at a meeting in Montreal on Thursday.

"For lowering blood pressure, reduce sodium intake to less than 2 grams a day," or 2,000 milligrams, advised Dr. Ross Feldman, a hypertension specialist from London, Ont., who speaks for the expert panel.

"The advice that we're giving we would hope would be important in informing public policy on what are healthy levels of salt, what are safe levels of salt, and what we should be aiming for to reduce the risk of high blood pressure and to lower blood pressure."

People with hypertension should continue to follow the advice of their health-care providers.

Most people take in an average of 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day — more than twice the previous recommended level of 1,500 milligrams per day for people nine to 70 years old — according to Health Canada.

There are 1,800 milligrams of sodium in three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt, according to the American Heart Association.

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Recommending lower sodium intake is based on the belief that lower levels reduce blood pressure, which results in fewer heart attacks and strokes.

Previous guideline 'unrealistic'

But some believe the previous guideline was too strict and unrealistic. They point to recent research suggesting that severely restricting sodium has also been linked to higher rates of heart attacks, strokes and congestive heart failure.

Health Canada doesn't have to follow the panel's recommendation but historically it has.

In May, an NDP private member's bill to implement sodium reduction failed to pass. It would have phased in lower sodium levels in prepackaged foods.

Also in May, the Institute of Medicine, which advises the U.S. and Canadian governments, concluded that new studies support efforts to reduce "excessive" sodium intake to lower risk of heart disease and stroke, but more research is needed on lowering daily dietary sodium to 1,500 milligrams in the general population.

In a commentary published in this month's issue of the American Journal of Hypertension, Dr. Salim Yusuf, Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario chair in cardiovascular disease at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. and his co-authors pointed to the Institute of Medicine committee's conclusions.

"I'm afraid with salt, we are in the mess because we're making recommendations without good data," Yusuf said.

Yusuf's commentary called for large studies measuring sodium in urine of healthy individuals to understand the association between sodium intake and cardiovascular disease.

Brian Desroches of Toronto said he's been trying to cut back on salt. "There is a lot of stuff I don't eat salt on, but then I guess it's already in some of the food that you buy, like ketchup and all that type of stuff. I mean how do you keep track of all of that?"

The Hypertension Canada panel will formally present its recommendations on Saturday. The new, official recommendation for health professionals and the general public is expected to be released in February.