Federal government ignores sodium in healthy eating campaign

Leona Aglukkaq fails to address the salt issue. Again.

by John Geddes

A pinch of halt

Provided by Health Canada

Last year the federal government paid Harris-Decima, the market research firm, $75,000 to test some ideas for an advertising campaign to promote healthy eating. The firm surveyed 1,800 parents with children 12 and under, and conducted focus groups in Toronto, Calgary and Montreal. They showed participants a variety of creative concepts. Some of the material simply urged consumers to eat healthier. But others were more pointed, including messages about how Canadians consume too much sodium, and that most of that salt hides in packaged foods. Those warnings clicked. “Specifically,” Harris-Decima said, “messages that focused on sodium rather than general healthy eating appeared to make a stronger connection with participants than more generic messages.”

Armed with this research, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq unveiled the “Eat Well” campaign in early March. In partnership with the Retail Council of Canada and the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, Aglukkaq’s department rolled out print ads, fact sheets for distribution in stores, online content and more. Yet little of the sodium material Harris-Decima found so effective survived. For instance, the firm tested a sort of fact box, meant to be displayed prominently like a label at the bottom of a print ad, which read: “Without knowing it, over 75 per cent of your sodium comes from packaged food.” An impressive one-third of the test audience ranked it, on a scale of one to 10, eight or higher. But it’s not being used. An alternative text box, which reads “Follow Canada’s food guide to make healthy choices,” made it into the campaign, despite only a tepid one-fifth of Harris-Decima’s participants scoring it eight or higher.

This isn’t the way they do it on Mad Men. Rejecting the ad ideas that seemed to work best, however, does fit with the Conservative track record on salt. Three years ago Aglukkaq disbanded the sodium working group, an expert panel that was pushing the government toward naming and shaming food companies that don’t do enough to reduce sodium in processed food. It’s a serious issue. According to Health Canada, Canadians typically eat about 3,400 mg of sodium a day, more than double what’s needed. All that salt hikes the risk of high blood pressure, and thus of strokes and heart disease.

But the Tories opted to put their emphasis on cheerfully coaxing consumers into planning meals carefully—not targeting the fact that so much salt is going into so many products. “The message on prepackaged food,” said Steve Outhouse, Aglukkaq’s communications director, “was determined to be focusing in too much on one specific area.” Outhouse added that rejecting sharp-edged messaging on sodium was the government’s call, not a decision dictated by the participating retailers or grocers.

He defended the approach as respectful of consumer choice. Nutrition labels give shoppers enough data to choose sensibly, he said, adding: “Government won’t decide that for you.” But some experts scoff at the campaign, which has a three-year budget of $10 million, for failing to be more blunt about sodium, especially high levels in processed food. “To bury this kind of information in these bland, anodyne, ‘Be a good Canadian and follow the food rules,’ messages, it’s delinquency,” said Dr. Andrew Pipe, chief of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute’s prevention and rehabilitation division. “It’s callously indifferent to what we all would understand to be public health priorities.”




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Federal government ignores sodium in healthy eating campaign

  1. Bland, anodyne messaging sautéed in callous indifference… a reliable favourite from the Harper communications recipe book.

    • Libby Davies is the NDPs food critic,what a joke!

  2. “Outhouse added that rejecting sharp-edged messaging on sodium was the
    government’s call, not a decision dictated by the participating
    retailers or grocers.”

    “In partnership with the Retail Council of Canada and the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers…”

    That second quote calls into question the sincerity of Outhouse’s statement. I simply don’t buy it. You think those groups are going to support a campaign that directly targets some of their most profitable merchandise?

    • I don’t see how you can read this article and give the government any benefit of the doubt. Of course Outhouse is an insincere liar.

  3. Maybe the government should just go pound sand. I do not want, nor do I need, a bunch of mindless, overpaid twits on the federal payroll determining how much salt is in my food. At what point does nanny-statism become simply absurd? I’d say it’s long before they start measuring and regulating salt in food. Besides, there’s no actual evidence that the salt in our food is harming us. There’s a reason why I routinely pray for an asteroid. Just a small one, mind you. About the size of a Buick….

    • You might be happily ignorant, but a lot of kids can benefit from knowing dumb parents want to be that way.

    • “there’s no actual evidence that the salt in our food is harming us. ”
      Umm….Salt is just the number 1 cause of high blood pressure, but I suppose you think there is no evidence HBP is a problem, lol.

      • Actually, if you do your homework, you will soon learn that there has never been a definitive link between dietary sodium and HBP. The war against salt is, in the end, somewhat bizarre. For example, the sodium intake guidelines proposed for the next Canada Food Guide (again, a typical nanny state overreach) would see us reducing our sodium intake to roughly 14% of what it has normally been for the last several centuries. My personal belief is that the legions of tobacco-nazis deployed by the feds, having fought the tobacco wars to a resounding draw, have simply been redeployed to a new war against the citizenry instead of being forced to collect EI.
        Please, God, an asteroid, just a little one…

        • You pay no attention to the College of Physicians stand on this, namely that most HBP in Canada is due to high sodium intake?
          Did your homework consist of locating some internet conspiracy theory, perhaps containing a few buzzwords that a layman like you who does not understand science could pick up on and run a one man crusade with?

          • Ummm..You may be right if the CDC really states what the article says. I will check into it more, because some of these online letter writers come up with wacko advice by conveniently leaving out a word or 2 to misconstrue the evidence from a study. This is a recent study and I had never heard of it. I will see what the College of Physicians has to say about this and may even get back to enjoying more salt.

          • Really Bill? You’ve cited a news article in which the first sentence reads:

            “A recent report from the CDC reviewed the health benefits of reducing salt and say that, even though Americans consume too much salt, major reductions is no longer considered a substantial health hazard.”

            Now please read that twice, and then comment on it if you would be so kind.

          • Read the entire article on PreventDisease.com. There is a link on the KFOR website. I’m not really interested in the poor English at KFOR.

          • Yes, Bill – I’m well aware of the most recent studies that fail to show correlation between dietary sodium reduction and improved health outcomes.

            I was more interested in your ‘Nuff said? retort, particularly since your cited source material was almost gibberish.

            Now don’t you think your time would be better suited to fixing that eavestrough that your wife has been after you about?

    • Yeah, I guess the swelling that occurs in my hands/feet whenever I eat something loaded w/ salt is perfectly normal & not indicative of anything.

      • Then eat less salt. That’s like saying we should ban Coca-Cola because when you drink it mixed with rum it makes you dizzy. It’s not up to the government to regulate every single aspect of our lives, especially that which we have complete control over. We can’t delude ourselves with the intellectual Gordian knot that declares that, because the nanny state exists, we must expand the nanny state in order to protect the nanny state, which is exactly what those who wish to impose tighter regulations on dietary salt are saying.
        Look, on a good day, the federal government is a vile and despicable agency. On a bad day? Well…

        • You’ve completely missed my point.

          • I think I got your point completely. You occasionally feel the effects of what may or may not be excess salt in your food, and believe that’s grounds for greater regulation of it. I’d bet you’re, strangely enough, “pro-choice”, except of course when it comes to ingredients in our food over which we individuals have almost complete control. If things loaded with salt make your hands and feet swell, don’t eat them. If you think there is too much salt in our food in general, then make the effort ON YOUR OWN to deal with it instead of eroding the freedoms of others in the name of the nanny state. Cigarettes bother me, so I don’t smoke. But, I specifically oppose greater restrictions on the freedom to smoke simply on the basis that the harmful effects of second hand smoke are just like Bigfoot. Everyone has heard of it, but there is no actual evidence of harm.

  4. A globe feature a few years ago said the same food manufactured in Canada has higher sodium content than if it is sold anywhere else, because decades ago manufacturers surveyed salt preference in the countries and ranked Canada highest.

    For instance you can buy Cheerios in the US with half the salt because GM pushes the max salt button when formulating for Canadians. The results of this survey will be with us forever with this gutless government, yet Aglukkaq pretends that the solution is manufacturers voluntarily lowering sodium. Lol.

  5. Now we all know the Harper Conservatives are for sale I wish they’d just publish a price list.

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