In the face of public pressure to lower salt levels in their products, the Canadian food industry has long pleaded for understanding: Cutting the salt is a time-consuming, costly process of menu reformulation and product innovation.
Turns out some members of the food industry could have saved a lot of time and money simply by stocking the products their overseas franchises were selling.
The sodium levels of many items sold in popular Canadian fast-food restaurants are substantially higher than the same items sold by the same chains in other countries, according to a new study published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
And suddenly, the argument by Canada's food industry that sodium reduction is a challenging process seems like it should be taken with a grain of salt.
"It is, to a certain extent, absurd," said one of the study's authors, Norm Campbell, the Heart and Stroke Foundation's Canadian chair in hypertension prevention and control. "Canadians are being misled."
In the study, a comprehensive comparison of more than 2,100 fast food items from a variety of chains located in Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia, France and New Zealand, found this country is home to some of the saltiest items. The sodium nutrition data was gathered in 2010 from the websites of Burger King, Domino's Pizza, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Subway.
The discrepancy in sodium levels is most obvious in the categories of salads and French fries.
In Canada, the 151 salads included in the survey contain an average 320 milligrams per 100 gram serving, far higher than any other country. In the U.S., Britain and Australia, the average was 200 milligrams per 100 grams, whereas in New Zealand and France, it was only 120 milligrams.
On average, French fries in Canada contain 560 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams, whereas in the U.S. it is 240 milligrams per 100 grams. In France, the average is 200 milligrams per 100 grams and in Britain, it is 320 milligrams per 100 grams.
Burgers sold in Canada, the U.S. and Australia contain 520 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams, more than one-third of the recommended daily intake for nine- to 50-year-olds of 1,500 milligrams. In France, burgers contain 480 milligrams per 100 grams; in Britain, it's 440 milligrams per 100 grams; while in New Zealand the figure is slightly higher, 560 milligrams per 100 grams.
"If these were the food Olympics, [Canada]would have gold and silver in every category for salt content," Dr. Campbell said.
The Canadian Stroke Network advises consumers to be wary of items that contain between 200 and 400 milligrams of sodium per serving and to outright avoid items that have more than 400 milligrams per serving.
Canada has been involved in a public battle to reduce national sodium levels for several years. A federally-appointed sodium working group released recommendations for change and proposed maximum sodium targets for food categories in 2010, but the group was disbanded by the government last year. Although Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq's office says they are committed to working with industry to bring down sodium levels, the government has scrapped plans to set maximum levels of sodium that can be added to breads, soups, sauces and other food items. The food industry is being encouraged to make cuts to sodium on its own accord.
The average Canadian consumes about 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, more than double the recommended amount and far above 2,300 milligrams, the level at which the threat of health problems starts to rise. High salt consumption is a leading risk factor for high blood pressure and is linked to cardiovascular disease, stroke, kidney disease and other problems.
The new study showing the relative saltiness of Canadian fast food reflects how little progress has been made getting this major public health issue under control, Dr. Campbell said.
"What it shows is that programs based on good corporate citizenship and voluntarism in the corporate sector are absolute failures," he said. "The federal government has really abdicated its responsibility to health, to the food sector."
In response to the study, the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association released a statement saying the industry is "actively working with suppliers and health and nutrition experts to help Canadians reduce their sodium intake."
The statement notes that many restaurants have made progress at reducing sodium since 2010, when researchers conducted the study.
Burger King Restaurants of Canada did not provide an interview, but in an e-mail statement, said "local regulations and regional taste profiles" allow "flexibility in menu specifications" in some countries.
McDonald's Restaurants of Canada declined an interview request, but said in a statement it has reduced the sodium of many restaurant items. For instance, Chicken McNuggets, which contained 600 milligrams of sodium for every 100 gram serving in 2010, now have 5.6 per cent less sodium.