Hold the salt: Packaged foods with the highest and lowest sodium levels

Click to play video: 'Processed food industry coming up short on cutting salt' Processed food industry coming up short on cutting salt
WATCH: The processed food industry was supposed to help reduce the amount of salt we consume by cutting sodium levels in processed and packaged foods. But as Allison Vuchnich explains, new evidence shows that hasn't really happened – Apr 26, 2016

Restaurants and fast food chains lowered sodium levels in their food, but prepackaged food is still loaded with salt, according to a new Canadian study.

In 2010, Health Canada introduced a sodium reduction strategy that encouraged Canadians to reduce their salt intake to about 2,300 milligrams per day by 2016. (Most Canadians eat about 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day.)

Turns out, there have been great strides with some foods, but very little gains with others.

“Most of the sodium Canadians consume comes from packaged and processed food. Food manufacturers need to lower the sodium levels in the foods they produce for this public health strategy to be effective,” said JoAnne Arcand, co-author of the study and assistant professor at the University of Ontario Insitute of Technology. Her research was completed while she was a postdoc at the University of Toronto.

READ MORE: Top 5 foods packed with sodium

Right now, there is no official monitoring program that’s tracking how successful health officials’ sodium reduction strategies are working.

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Arcand’s research zeroed in on a handful of food categories between 2010 and 2013. She and her team looked at about 10,000 packaged foods and their nutrition facts labels in 2010. Another 15,000 were looked at in 2013.

Here are which foods made “excellent progress” in cutting back on salt:

  • Imitation seafood
  • Condiments
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Canned vegetables and legumes
  • Plain potato chips
  • Hot cereals
  • Meat substitutes
  • Canned, condensed soup
  • Sausages and wieners

Other categories saw modest improvements of about five to 10 per cent. Targets were set at 25 to 30 per cent reductions over the course of six years.

READ MORE: Top 10: Some of the worst foods for your heart’s health

Other food categories fared poorly in reducing salt. They include:

  • Bread
  • Prepacked deli meats
  • Foods, such as soy sauce, Oriental sauces, dips and gravies saw an increase in sodium levels

A whopping 82 per cent of foods had no change in sodium within the three-year study time frame. Salt levels went down in about 16 per cent but two per cent saw an increase.

READ MORE: Salt levels in fast food ‘substantially higher’ Canada

The Retail Council of Canada says the study reveals an “impressive snapshot” of the Canadian grocery industry.

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Its senior vice president, Dave Wilkes, says the industry made “significant progress” in reducing sodium levels, well in advance of the 2016 guidelines.


He notes the report is based on 2013 data, before more changes were made.

“There is definitely more work to be done, but the report clearly shows that the voluntary approach is working. Industry will continue to innovate and offer new products to consumers to help them make choices that are right for them and their families,” Joslyn Higginson, vice president of Food and Consumer Products of Canada, said in a statement.

Dr. Norman Campbell, a University of Calgary researcher and Heart and Stroke Foundation chair in hypertension prevention and control, applauded the Canadian research. He’s been studying sodium in food for years.

“We know that food labels have historically underestimated the sodium content of foods,” he warned.

In an international collaboration he worked on in 2012, Campbell found that Canadian fast food had “substantially” higher levels of salt compared to the same burgers, fries and pizza being served in other countries, including the U.K., U.S. and Australia.

In that case, they looked at the salt content of more than 2,100 fast food items on the menus of six major companies – McDonald’s, Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and Subway.

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The items included breakfast, burgers, chicken products, pizza, sandwiches, French fries and salads.

Canadians want food with less salt, Arcand and her team suggest.

READ MORE: Canadians ‘overwhelmingly’ support salt reduction initiatives 

In 2013, their research suggested that Canadians ‘overwhelmingly’ agree with sodium reduction initiatives. Canadians were on board with forcing the food industry to lower salt levels in products, and  to slap warning labels on foods that exceed healthy salt intake.

Read the latest study here.

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