TORONTO — Canada’s fast-food industry has shirked its responsibilities to consumers by serving some of the saltiest menu offerings in the world, an international group of researchers said Monday.
Canadian incarnations of fast-food offerings routinely feature higher salt content than many of their international counterparts, according to a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
Researchers in six countries compared more than 2,100 food products from international chains with locations around the world. Standard offerings from McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Domino’s Pizza, Subway and Pizza Hut were analyzed for the amount of sodium found per hundred grams of food.
In categories ranging from french fries to salads, Canada’s versions of the popular dishes featured either the highest or second highest sodium levels of the countries included in the study.
Salt levels varied dramatically between the six countries, with France and the U.K. boasting the lowest overall sodium values. The United States often vied with Canada for the highest scores, while New Zealand and Australia rounded out the other participants.
Norm Campbell, study co-author and professor of medicine at the University of Calgary, said the findings cast doubt on common wisdom coming from the restaurant sector.
Industry officials have long argued that technical issues prevent them from reducing the salt content of standard menu offerings, citing altered taste and texture or increased bacteria levels in the lower-sodium versions, he said.
The latest study suggests those arguments don’t hold water, he said.
“Other countries and other companies are able to produce lower salt options and put them out,” Campbell said in a telephone interview. “Salt levels vary widely. There are certainly no technical issues that stand in the way.”
The disparity between Canada’s food options and those on offer elsewhere in the world was sometimes dizzying, Campbell said.
Canada’s fast-food salads featured an average of 0.8 grams per 100 gram serving, nearly triple France’s score of 0.3. Canada’s chains also put more salt in their fries and sandwiches than any other nation, handily beating all other participating countries.
McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets, which feature 0.6 grams of sodium in the U.K., are available with more than twice the salt at Canadian franchises.
Campbell said it’s imperative that fast-food restaurants take steps to lower the ingredient that plays such a key role in hypertension, diabetes and myriad other health concerns.
Garth White, president of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said many organizations have recognized the need for action.
Sodium levels have come down since the data for the study was collected in 2010, he said, adding the issue is just one piece of a complex health puzzle.
“We could be talking about alergins next week, and the week after that we’ll be talking about calories,” White said. “There’s a whole basket of healthy living issues that we’re dealing with.”
Campbell agrees that sodium levels are just one of many concerns that need to be addressed.
Canada’s government, while on the verge of launching a sodium reduction strategy, has not adopted the aggressive target-setting measures implemented in countries such as the U.K., he said.
Failure to follow those proven models will only perpetuate an environment he sees as genuinely dangerous.
The latest numbers, he hopes, will generate the sort of discussion necessary to bring about significant nutritional improvements.
“We’re living in a very unhealthy food environment,” he said. “This is just part of the issue.”