Less salt, better health

By Jessica Starreveld and Elizabeth Latham,Journalist
Wednesday, 13 February, 2008

Australians are consuming 5-10 times more salt than they need, according to Associate Professor Bruce Neal, chairman of Australia Division of World Action on Salt and Health (AWASH). Neal also pointed out that most people need very little salt for good health.

AWASH is aiming for Australians to reduce their consumption of salt to 6 g per day within 5 years and is working on a strategy to work with the food industry to achieve an overall reduction of salt in processed foods by 25%, over a 5-year period.

This AWASH aim is supported by consumer demands. As part of its 'Drop The Salt!' campaign, AWASH conducted a survey of Australian parents across the country and found that 83% of respondents felt that more action needed to be taken to reduce the salt content of foods.

At present, no government regulation exists surrounding the levels of salt produced in foods. Similarly, no regulation is aimed at promoting a healthy intake of salt, and therefore sodium, by the Australian public.

How can packaging help?

Manufacturers can help consumers choose products with lower salt content by offering packaging that makes it clear to consumers how much salt is in the product at a glance.

In the UK, approximately 40% of the retail market has taken up a 'traffic light' approach. This system attempts to make labelling clear and easy for consumers to read. If a product is high in salt (more than 1.5g salt per 100g) it's labelled with a red traffic light, if it contains a medium level of salt it receives an orange traffic light and if it is low in salt (0.3g salt or less per 100g) it's labelled with a green traffic light.

Delegates at the AWASH 'Drop The Salt!' conference conceded this approach would work well in Australia.

Manufacturers take responsibility

Dame Deirdre Hutton, chair of the UK Food Standards Agency, has said that 75% of the salt we eat is already in the food we buy. Although the consumer has the power to choose their favoured products, this responsibility lies in hands of the manufacturer.

Hutton revealed some of the manufacturers and fast food outlets that have answered this call: Kellogg's, Lowan Whole Foods, McDonald's Australia, the Sanitarium Health Food Company, Coles, The Smith's Snackfood Company, and Unilever Australasia.

These manufacturers have also been joined by a group of food organisations such as The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), the Compass Group and Food Science Australia. In the UK, another group of manufacturers and organisations have joined their nations cause against salt and its effects on health.

AFGC chief executive Dick Wells commented on why such action is important: "We are playing our part by focusing on positive messages and taking positive steps to help consumers build and maintain healthy diets and balanced lifestyles."

Another problem arises with a consumer's ability to add more salt to their meal after its preparation. Arguably, it is difficult to monitor how much is added after preparation, as this responsibility and choice lies with the consumer. However, as mentioned before, although some power in this area lies with the government, no government regulation is in place to encourage the right choices in foods, products and ultimately diet.

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