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Study reveals consumers under-estimate sodium intake

Ontario Food Panel highlights consumer views on sodium consumption, as well as industry responsibility in salt reduction


Guelph, Ont. – University of Guelph researchers are using an Ontario-wide panel to investigate consumer attitudes towards sodium-reduction initiatives and practices. The study is in line with the Canadian government’s increased efforts to reduce the population’s sodium intake.

Created by researchers in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, the Ontario Food Panel was developed to gain a better understanding of consumer attitudes towards food in the province, including food safety and the local food movement. The present study on sodium served to test Ontarians’ perception of their own intake and to measure their willingness and ability to reduce their sodium consumption.

Over consumption

According to Health Canada, Canadian adults consume an average of 3,400 mg of sodium per day, far above the recommended intake of 1,500 to 2,300 mg per day. It must be noted, however, that this is not a problem limited to adults. The 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey found that over three-quarters of children aged one to three years exceeded the maximum level of sodium considered safe to consume without causing adverse health effects (called the upper limit). It was also found that the sodium intake of 93 per cent of children aged four to eight years, 97 per cent of male teens and 82 per cent of female teens was above the respective recommended upper limit.

While studies have consistently shown that Canadians are aware that consumption of sodium in the population is generally too high, they are much less likely to be concerned about their own intake. Further, many Canadians do not know what qualifies as “too much” sodium.

Sodium reduction

This study by the Ontario Food Panel looked at the degree of difficulty that consumers experience when attempting to follow 23 behaviours aimed at reducing sodium intake. Based on responses from 1,330 members of the panel aged 20 to 69 years, the integral role and responsibility that the Canadian food industry has in reducing the nation’s sodium intake is clear.

The behaviours that panellists found easiest to adopt all related to personal food preparation, such as using fresh foods or using spices instead of salt during cooking.  Relatively simple product substitutions, such as buying low-sodium versions of products, were also seen as relatively easy to do.

While consumers evidently find it easiest to adjust their food preparation methods and adding salt at the table, these are not the most important sources of sodium in the average Canadian’s diet. More important to sodium intake is reducing the consumption of prepared foods, in particular baked goods, or choosing variants of these products that are lower in sodium.

“The bottom line is that they find simple substitutions easy (like cutting down on salt at the table) but these are less important to sodium intake,” says project leader Professor Spencer Henson. “They find it more difficult cutting down on foods that are important to sodium intake, like baked goods.”

Industry role

These results highlight the key role of the food industry. Thus, the development and sale of prepared foods with lower sodium content clearly has a key role to play in reducing sodium intake in Canada. On the other hand, taste differences between sodium-reduced and “regular” products were rated in the research as a significant barrier to reducing sodium intake. Clearly then there is a need for both the gradual reformulation of prepared foods and advances in food technology to limit the taste changes associated with reduced salt use.

Consistent with previous research findings, the Ontario Food Panel found that women and those aged between 50 and 59 years find it easiest to undertake behaviours directed at reducing sodium intake. Conversely, men and younger consumers found such behaviours much more difficult. This suggests that health professionals and marketers must tailor their messages towards the specific needs and challenges faced by particular sectors of the population.

In the coming months, the research will be extended to consumers across Canada through the Advanced Food and Materials Network (AFMNet) Consumer Monitor, a representative panel of Canadian consumers.

Funding for this study was provided by AFMNet.

Nicole Yada is with the Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics department at the University of Guelph. For more information on the study contact her at [email protected]