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Australia targets salt

 Shaking salt onto a plate of food could get you into more trouble than you think. Salt levels in Australian-produced food have been proven to be so high that they are a main contributor to health problems in adults.

It is estimated that Australians consume around 9 to 10 grams of salt per day, which is well above the recommended maximum of 6 grams per day.

Advocacy groups in Australia and worldwide lead the calls for salt reduction. The UK and Finland both have government-led salt reduction campaigns.

The Australian Division of World Action on Salt and Health (AWASH) is calling on the government to take action by setting salt target levels for processed and take-away foods.

“Salt reduction efforts in Australia are piecemeal and progressing too slowly,” said Professor Bruce Neal, chair of AWASH. “Target levels for salt in processed and take-away foods are urgently required. Industry is crying out for a level playing field that everyone can work toward.”

They’ve shown this works in the UK, Neal said, and New York City has just set targets that will be applied across the US. We are passing up one of the greatest public health opportunities in Australia. A recent report on the US strategy showed that reducing population salt intake by 3 grams could prevent up to 92,000 deaths each year.”

In the UK and the US, negotiations between government, industry and scientists have established maximum acceptable salt levels for more than 85 categories of processed and fast foods. Industry then works toward achieving these targets over an agreed timeframe, typically a couple of years.

There is overwhelming evidence that the current high levels of salt consumed in Australia cause high blood pressure, are the leading cause of stroke and are a major factor in heart disease. While most Australians eat 9 to 10 grams of salt a day, they could live healthily on just 1 to 2 grams per day. Levels of salt in naturally occurring foods are very low, but industry adds huge amounts during the manufacturing process. There is growing evidence that it also causes stomach cancer, osteoporosis, obesity, kidney stones and kidney failure.

The new research, published in February in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, highlights the wide range of salt levels in Australian processed foods and illustrates how they stack up against UK targets. The Australian food industry has achieved important reductions in some food categories but others are still very salty. For many food types there was a huge range in the salt content of the saltiest product compared to the least salty, suggesting substantial scope for change.

Many people recognise that salt is bad for health and have stopped adding salt during cooking or at the table, but this will only get them so far. With some three-quarters of the salt we eat hidden in everyday foods, such as bread, processed meat and take-away foods, it is very hard to make these necessary large reductions. Australia needs to set its own salt targets. We can get a good lead from the UK and the US about how to do this, but we urgently need the Australian food industry and government to come to the table and figure out a local solution.

The George Institute will ask government, industry and AWASH to meet, review the new data and develop a plan for setting targets for salt levels for all processed and take-away foods that contribute importantly to salt in the Australian diet. This includes bread, processed meat products, processed cheeses, soups and sauces, savoury snacks and biscuits, salad dressings, breakfast cereals, pastries and most fast food and take-away meals.

Up to industry

The more than 75 per cent of salt con sumed by Australians is “hidden” salt, which is the salt that is in processed foods. Salt added to food at the table represents only a small proportion of daily salt intake.AWASH launched its Drop the Salt! campaign in May 2007 to develop a five-year strategy to reduce salt in processed foods by 25 per cent. The strategy aims to secure commitment from Australia’s food industry to activate ways to reformulate food products with lower salt options. The Australian food industry has begun to make good progress and recognises that more needs to be done. The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) supports initia tives contributing to the objective of improving public health through healthy eating, including reducing hypertension through a target daily salt intake for adults below 6 grams per day. The AFGC advocates that the food industry should continue to review product formulations and processing technologies with a view to reducing the use of salt, while still ensuring that food products remain appealing to consumers in taste, conven ience and price and that product safety and integrity can be maintained through out an appropriate shelf-life.

Jacqui Webster is coordinator of AWASH, which is hosted by the George Institute.

www.awash.org.au

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