Editor’s Letter: May 2010
By Brian Hartz
Last year, sodium reduction was being touted as THE issue to watch in 2010. Headlines asked, “Is sodium the new trans fat?”
Last year, sodium reduction was being touted as THE issue to watch in 2010. Headlines asked, “Is sodium the new trans fat?” That comparison has been criticized, fairly, using the apples-to-oranges argument, as sodium, even though it contributes to high blood pressure (and therefore heart disease and stroke), is an essential nutrient in our diets.
There’s no doubt that sodium reduction has gone mainstream. For some time now, Campbell’s Soup has been making it the focus of a major advertising campaign, and other well-known brands are following suit. On the industry side of the equation, the Canadian government has formed a Sodium Working Group to consult with the food manufacturing sector on voluntary sodium-reduction targets modelled on what Britain’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) has done for U.K. food makers.
The result of this process, which began in October 2007, is a proposal by Health Canada to reduce Canadians’ daily sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams by the year 2016. Thus, the agency is also proposing sodium reduction targets for food manufacturers.
Health Canada and the Baking Association of Canada have been holding a series of consultations with the baking industry to gather feedback about technical issues and other barriers to achieving the sodium reduction targets. On March 2, one of these meetings took place in Mississauga, Ont., and featured a presentation by Health Canada’s Nora Lee and Guelph Food Technology Centre’s John Michaelides, a food science expert who writes Bakers Journal’s Technical Talk column.
I attended this meeting, as well, and while I wouldn’t categorize the proceedings as anything less than cordial, some strong language was used, and passions were inflamed.
“When I see a government agent on the podium, coming to business with legislation, I have some major concerns,” John Rosetti of Italian Home Bakery said, addressing Lee. “Since you’re here on a consultative basis, my recommendation is that government gets out of our way when it comes to legislating levels of sodium intake. Let the individual choose . . . The education should be on the individual: increase physical activity; stop smoking. But get out of our way.”
To be fair, Lee was facing a tough crowd. Bakers feel like they are being picked on, and some viewed this meeting as a chance to vent their frustrations. The onus is on the government to explain why it wants bakers to reformulate a product that has stood the test of time since the very infancy of civilization and, based on Lee’s performance, Ottawa is doing a lousy sales job. Maybe that’s being too blunt, but to feign impartiality on this issue would be a disservice to not only the baking industry but other food manufacturing sectors that are threatened by the government’s view that individual responsibility is a thing of the past.
Sure, many processed, ready-to-eat entrees are grossly over-salted, and soups tend to be major sodium offenders. Makers of these products are due for their own consultations if they haven’t already endured them. After all, as Lee put it, “We’re not targeting just your industry; we’re equal-opportunity targeting. Just so you’re aware.” That line drew some laughter, much of it uncomfortable.
But in baking, salt plays a role far more important than mere taste. It’s a functional ingredient that suppresses bitterness, strengthens and tightens gluten, and enhances shelf life. If consumers, for the sake of convenience, are choosing processed foods that weren’t available 50 years ago instead of home-cooked meals featuring bread, then that is where the crux of the problem lies.
Dennis Rosetti, John’s partner, may have put it best: “The baking industry is one of the best self-regulated industries in all of the food sectors. When we look at an issue like trans fats, bakeries were some of the first to take them out of their products. It didn’t even come to the point where legislation was needed.”
Health Canada’s reply? “We’re not talking legislation at this point; we’re talking about voluntary reductions.”
“At this point.” Remember those words.