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Boston Pizza cuts salt - but only by a pinch

Another major Canadian restaurant chain has decided to cut sodium levels in a variety of its menu items in advance of new salt-reduction guidelines from a federal task force.

Boston Pizza announced this week that it has lowered sodium in 75 per cent of its menu items.

But even with the changes, sodium levels in many appetizers, meals and even salads still exceed the recommended daily intake for adults. In some cases, the sodium levels even surpass the "upper tolerable limit" beyond which the risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems and other health problems starts to increase.

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For instance, an individual-sized 432-gram rustic Italian pizza now contains 3,670 milligrams of sodium, down from 3,860 milligrams. The reformulated dish still contains twice the amount of sodium adults are supposed to consume in an entire day. The recommended daily sodium intake for people aged 9 to 50 is 1,500 mg. The upper tolerable limit for people aged 14 and older is 2,300 mg.

Under the new menu, a 611-gram Greek salad contains 1,960 mg of sodium, down from 2,250 mg. A starter portion of oven-roasted barbecue wings now contains 1,290 mg of sodium instead of the previous 1,590 mg.

Some items on the children's menu also contain slightly less salt. The chicken fingers, which used to have 870 mg of sodium per 151-gram serving, now contain 640 mg. But other items, such as the bugs n' cheese, have stayed the same with 760 mg of sodium, not including sauce. The kids' cheeseburgers also still have 1,030 mg of sodium per 195-gram serving.

In fact, all items on the new children's menu - with the exception of the pint-sized pizza, which contains 530 mg of sodium, or the baked salmon, which contains 70 mg - have more than half the recommended daily sodium intake for children between ages 4 and 8, which is 1,200 mg.

Although it's clear many dishes still contain too much salt, it's encouraging to see restaurants are starting to respond to calls for reductions, said Sheldon Tobe, a nephrologist at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, the chair of the Canadian Hypertension Education Program and spokesman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

"They have a long way to go. This is the first step in a long journey," Dr. Tobe said. "They should be rewarded, and I'm hoping if they're rewarded they will continue to make more changes in the right direction."

Boston Pizza said it is trying to respond to shifting consumer tastes while still providing choice to those looking for comfort food rather than strictly healthy fare.

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"We want to be responsive to guests' changing diets and nutritional needs," said Steve Silverstone, executive vice-president of marketing at Boston Pizza. "We also recognize that we want to provide great-tasting food that's cravable."

He highlighted the fact the chain has focused on including healthier items, such as the new chopped chicken salad, which has 210 mg of sodium.

The move by Boston Pizza reflects a broad trend occurring in the food industry, which faces growing pressure to respond to sodium-related health concerns while needing to maintain the salty taste that attracts consumers - and their wallets.

McDonald's Canada recently announced modest changes to sodium levels in several menu items. Last year, Pizza Pizza announced it had created a new crust to help reduce sodium levels, but most menu items are still high in salt.

That conflicting pressures facing the food industry will play an increasingly prominent role in coming months as the Sodium Working Group appointed by Health Canada prepares to publish its recommendations to lower sodium levels across the population. Although the recommendations, set to be released next month, are not mandatory, the working group says that if food manufacturers don't comply they will face federal regulations.

On average, Canadians of all ages consume excessive amounts of sodium every day - amounts that are high enough to put them at risk of developing high blood pressure, a leading risk factor for cardiovascular disease, stroke and other health problems.

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Experts also say high sodium consumption is contributing to kidney problems, osteoporosis and stomach cancer.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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