The sodium shake – why food manufacturers need to reduce salt levels

As obesity rates continue to rise throughout the country, Australian consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about salt levels in food – in particular, food products targeting children.

A report released by the Dieticians Association of Australia in late 2012 stated that Aussie children are “overdosing on salt” by consuming sodium levels comparable to that of adults.

More recently, consumer group Choice, in conjunction with The George Institute for Global Health, released an independent report which found alarmingly high levels of salt in a host of breakfast cereals and children’s snacks. The report claimed that 72 out of 240 products tested revealed higher levels of sodium per 100 grams than the popular Smith’s Original chips.

The claim was strongly refuted by peak industry body, the Australian Food and Grocery Council, which dismissed the claims by stating that salt levels in children’s snack foods are neither harmful nor hidden. The lobby group also emphasised that members of the food manufacturing industry are being proactive, and taking significant steps to address salt levels.  

So exactly how much salt is too much? What does current legislation state about sodium levels? What initiatives are food manufacturers implementing to tackle the issue and how are consumers embracing the changes?

Health concerns translate to business concerns

Although the human body requires a small amount of salt to function, Australians are consuming alarmingly high salt levels, 75 percent of which comes directly from processed food, according to the National Heart Foundation.

 Accredited practicing dietician, Professor Caryl Nowson of Deakin University in Melbourne, conducted research into the salt consumption of children. The study drew from a sample of 238 children aged 5 to 13 years and found that seven in 10 children exceeded the recommended upper limit for sodium. Nowson also found that salt levels in adults did not fair much better with 97 percent of Australian men, and 86 percent of women found to be consuming far more than the recommended daily intake.

The Dieticians Association of Australia states that rising salt levels, especially in foods targeting children, increase the likelihood of health problems later in life including high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

The National Heart Foundation of Australia also stresses that the total maximum recommended limit of sodium for adults should be less than 2,300mg per day, and much less for children. Foods that contain less than 120mg of sodium per 100g are considered ‘low in salt’, and the Heart Foundation recommends that foods be restricted to no more than 600mg of sodium per serve.

The Australian government launched The Food and Health Dialogue in late 2009 which serves as a joint government and industry public health initiative aimed at making healthier food choices more accessible for Australians. Participation in the initiative is voluntary with no legal obligations tied to involvement.

A number of agreements under the new initiative will see leading food manufacturers and grocery retailers reformulate key grocery lines to comply with new standards regarding portion sizing, consumer messaging and sodium levels.

The list of categories where participants are encouraged to reduce sodium include breads, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, simmer sauces, processed meats, soups, savoury pies and savoury crackers.

Big players such as General Mills, George Weston Foods Limited, Kellogg, Arnott’s Australia, Unilever and both Coles and Woolworths have all chosen to participate in selected categories.

Each category features differing targets to be achieved within set time-frames, however questions have been raised as to how effective a voluntary agreement can really be.

Is Australia behind the times?

Australia is already behind Britain and the USA which have both introduced limits on salt in recognition of community initiatives to control health related issues.

According to Jacqui Webster, the head of food policy at The George Institute for Global Health, Australia has only set around 17 targets over the past four years, whereas the UK has released 80 in just two years.

Professor Bruce Neal, also of The George Institute of Health, said tougher action is needed to control sodium levels, especially in children’s food.

“This calls for much tougher action to control the food industry, so it is not profiting at the expense of our children’s health,” he said.

While Aussie food manufacturers appear to be a little slow on the uptake, the Australian Division of World Action on Salt & Health (AWASH) has listed a number of businesses which have taken considerable steps to reduce sodium levels. These include George Weston Foods, Goodman Fielder, Bakers Delight, Freedom Foods, Heinz Australia and Sanitarium.

AWASH launched its Drop the Salt! campaign in 2007 with an aim to reduce the amount of salt consumed by Australians to 6g per day over a five year period. The campaign was said to be influenced by the success of initiatives in the UK which were widely adopted by the nation’s leading food manufacturers.

Gavin Neath, chairman of Unilever Bestfoods, said the UK’s salt reduction program was a testament to the effectiveness of both government and industry working together to achieve a positive outcome for the community.

“The work that was done in the UK … to reduce salt levels in processed foods was an excellent example of government and industry working effectively together on an important issue of public health. Over a period of three years very significant reductions were made across a broad range of product categories that included everything from bread and breakfast cereals to soups and meal sauces,” Neath said.

Why manufacturers should be liberal in their approach to salt

Let’s face it, salt is cheap. And it’s tasty and it can undoubtedly add flavour to a product that without it could taste a little bland.

But food manufacturers are increasingly being put under the microscope in regards to how their products are marketed towards children, and also to ensure they don’t exceed acceptable levels of additives such as sugar, fat and salt.

Many time-poor consumers place trust in the food industry by assuming that products marketed as a healthy snack alternative for kids, i.e a muesli bar, are indeed healthy.

However we are now living in the age of the health-conscious consumer, and that consumer is becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to reading nutritional information labels and assessing appropriate levels of added ingredients in processed foods.

So really, to keep ahead of the game, salt levels need to be addressed sooner rather than later, not just for corporate social responsibility reasons, but also for a businesses’ long-term brand integrity.