ARCHIVED Frequently Asked Questions: Guiding Benchmark Sodium Reduction Levels

1. What are the guiding benchmark sodium reduction levels?

The guiding benchmark sodium reduction levels are sodium amounts for processed food categories designed to help guide the food industry in reducing sodium levels in their food products. More than 75% of sodium in the Canadian diet comes from processed foods; lowering the sodium content in these foods will greatly help meet the goal of reducing the population's average sodium intake by approximately 30% to 2300 mg per day by 2016. Canadians are encouraged to increase their awareness of the effect of sodium on their health, as well as choosing a healthy diet that includes lower sodium food products. These choices will help lower Canadians' sodium intake and support industry efforts to offer lower sodium products.

2. Are food companies expected to meet the guiding benchmark sodium reduction levels?

Health Canada encourages companies to adjust the sodium amounts in their food products to meet the 2016 guiding benchmark sodium reduction levels by the end of 2016 and, if possible, go beyond them over time to the lowest amount possible, taking into consideration factors like microbial safety, quality and consumer acceptance.

3. Have guiding benchmark sodium reduction levels been set for all foods in the marketplace?

Guiding benchmark sodium reduction levels have been established for almost all processed food categories that contain added sodium. Sodium is very common in the Canadian food supply, so it was important that the approach takes into account reductions across all food categories.

There are foods for which no guiding benchmark sodium reduction levels were set, including those that do not contain sodium or only contain naturally occurring sodium, such as milk, fresh vegetables and fruits, and single ingredient foods like shell eggs, meat, poultry, fish and seafood.

4. Does a sodium reduction approach exist for foods sold in foodservice establishments or restaurants?

Sodium reduction levels have been proposed for processed foods only. They include processed foods for consumer use; foods for further manufacturing, such as ingredients for processed foods; and foods for use by restaurants and foodservice in food preparation.

5. How did Health Canada develop the guiding benchmark sodium reduction levels?

Health Canada used Canadian ACNielsen market volume data to design a plan for sampling individual products and grouping them into categories. The Sales Weighted Average (SWA) and range of sodium amounts within each category were determined using information from the products' Nutrition Facts tables and market share information from ACNielsen. The SWA sodium content in milligrams per 100 grams was calculated based on approximately 80% of the Canadian market share in kilograms for each food category. In general, the 2016 SWA sodium levels are percent reductions from the current SWA sodium amount. For food safety and feasibility purposes, the majority of the guiding benchmark sodium reduction levels have been set at a level already found in the marketplace.

6. Why are the guiding benchmark sodium reduction levels set out by category?

There are thousands of individual food products. It is not necessary or realistic to have guiding benchmark sodium reduction levels for each individual food item. Specific products come and go, but food manufacturers and restaurants continue to sell foods within the same general categories. By setting levels for an entire category, overall sodium levels can be decreased across the food supply.

7. How did Health Canada select the food categories?

The guiding benchmark sodium reduction levels were designed to cover as many processed food categories as possible, given that sodium is so common in the food supply. The categories used in market share data purchased from ACNielsen were the starting point for product categorization. In addition, the  United Kingdom Food Standards Agency and the  New York City Department of Health's sodium reduction categories, as well as feedback from stakeholders, were considered when grouping foods and refining the food categories.

8. What does "label data" mean?

The sodium values were obtained from the Nutrition Facts tables on the labels of processed food products collected from companies, stores and company websites. This is what "label data" refers to.

9. What is the difference between the Maximum and Sales Weighted Average (SWA) levels?

The 2016 guiding benchmark sodium reduction levels are set as both a SWAs and Maximum levels. Companies are encouraged to meet both components of the level by the end of 2016. The staged sodium reduction phases have been set only as SWAs.

The Maximum levels have been set with the goal for the sodium content for all processed foods in that category to fall below the Maximum value by the end of 2016. Maximums are set to curb the sodium amounts in the foods with the most sodium within each category.

The SWA is measured using the sodium levels of the products within a category weighted by their Canadian volume market share. The proportion of the market is measured as the kilogram (kg) volume of sales of a product rather than the dollar value. To meet the SWA sodium reduction level, manufacturers are encouraged to adjust the sodium amount of all their products within the category, so that the SWA of all their products is equal to, or less than, the SWA level set for the category. Companies are encouraged to aim for a sodium level (weighted by sales volume in kg) of their product portfolio within a category to meet the SWA benchmark levels. To calculate the SWA of your product portfolio within a category, visit the SWA Calculator.

For example:

Company X manufactures 10 varieties of crackers under its brand name. By the end of 2016, the average sodium value (weighted by kg sales) for their cracker portfolio may meet or be below the 2016 SWA level for that category. The sodium amount of each individual variety of crackers should not exceed the 2016 Maximum level set for that category.

Note that the guiding benchmark sodium reduction levels were developed based on label information. Nutrient amounts in the Nutrition Facts table are subject to  rounding rules and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's  Nutrition Labelling Compliance Test.

10. Why do the 2016 benchmark levels have both a Maximum and Sales Weighted Average (SWA)?

Health Canada conducted a consultation in November 2010 to obtain feedback on the potential implications of setting levels as SWAs and/or Maximums. This feedback helped inform Health Canada's decision.

Setting the staged sodium reduction phases as SWAs and the 2016 sodium reduction levels as both SWAs and Maximum levels give companies the ability to plan their sodium reduction efforts according to which products are most easily reformulated or discontinued. This approach also allows companies the flexibility to consider how to get the most impact for achieving the benchmark SWA sodium content in each product category within their portfolio. Moreover, maximum levels promote a downward shift of both the upper end of the sodium intake distribution curve, as well as the average sodium intake. It is hoped that this will shift salt taste preference among the broadest range of consumers and eventually increase consumer demand for low sodium products.

11. How do I calculate the Sales Weighted Average (SWA)?

Health Canada has developed a SWA Calculator to help with this calculation.

SWA is:

  • The volume of sales (kg) for each n product within a one year period (X1, ...., Xn )
  • Multiplied by its sodium value in mg/100 g (Y1, ..., Yn)
  • Divided by the total volume of sales (kg) for the category.

SWA Equation

SWA = [X1Y1+X2Y2+...+XnYn] ÷ [X1 + X2 + ... +Xn]

12. How do you know that the average sodium intake of Canadians will be lowered to 2300 mg per day should the sodium in processed foods be reduced to the 2016 guiding benchmark sodium reduction levels?

Statisticians modelled the sodium reduction levels to estimate how much sodium will be consumed by Canadians if the sodium in processed foods was reduced to the 2016 guiding benchmark sodium reduction levels. Modelling is based on food intake records from the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey 2.2 along with sodium levels obtained from food product labels collected between 2009 and 2010.

FPT governments are committed to helping create conditions that make the healthier choice the easier choice for consumers. It is expected that educating Canadians about sodium, the negative impact it has on health, and the importance of sodium reduction, along with additional research, will help consumers make more informed choices and further reduce the average sodium intake in Canada.

13. What is your definition of 'company'?

"Company" is intended to refer to a manufacturer as defined in  A.01.010 of the FDR: "...a person, including an association or partnership, who under their own name, or under a trade, design or word mark, trade name or other name, word or mark controlled by them, sells a food or drug."

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