Do you shake too much salt on your food? I must confess to being a heavy user – despite it being a killer when taken in excess. But I’m in good company: most of the world also uses too much salt.
A damning new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) says that millions of people around the world will continue to die from a high salt diet because most governments are failing to use tough policies to reduce sodium intake.
Only nine countries – Brazil, Chile, Czechia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Spain and Uruguay – are doing enough, and the world is far short of achieving its global target of reducing sodium intake by 30% by 2025. Two million deaths a year are linked to a high salt diet, and the WHO report says that more action by governments could save seven million lives globally by 2030.
A teaspoon a day
Sodium – the main source of which is table salt (normally sodium chloride) – is an essential nutrient, which helps to control blood pressure. But, when eaten in excess, it increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and premature death. Most of the salt we eat comes from processed foods rather than what we ourselves add to our meals.
The estimated global salt intake is 10.8 grams a day per person – over double the WHO recommendation of five grams (one teaspoon) daily.
“Unhealthy diets are a leading cause of death and disease globally, and excessive sodium intake is one of the main culprits,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.
“This report shows that most countries are yet to adopt any mandatory sodium reduction policies, leaving their people at risk of heart attack, stroke, and other health problems.”
Mandatory limits are needed
WHO wants: food manufacturers to mark salt content more clearly on packaging, public campaigns about the risks of eating too much salt, and most controversially, mandatory limits on the amount of salt the food industry can add to processed food.
“This important report demonstrates that countries must work urgently to implement ambitious, mandatory, government-led sodium reduction policies to meet the global target of reducing salt consumption by 2025,” said Dr Tom Frieden, President and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives.
“There are proven measures that governments can implement and important innovations, such as low sodium salts. The world needs action, and now, or many more people will experience disabling or deadly—but preventable—heart attacks and strokes.”
The UK is lagging behind
The UK was once considered a world leader in its approach to salt reduction, but not any longer. The UK has had a voluntary salt reduction programme in place for nearly 20 years, and at the start of the programme there were significant reductions in the population’s salt intakes – from 9.5g/day to 8.1g/day average consumption per person.
In the same period, population blood pressure and deaths from heart attacks and stroke also fell. Action on Salt reports that reducing population salt intakes by just 1g a day would save over 4,000 premature deaths from strokes and heart attacks, and save the NHS £288mn every year.
However, there have been no reported significant changes in salt intakes since 2009, and UK salt intakes currently average 8.4g/day. Campaigners claim this shows that the voluntary approach is no longer fit for purpose, and that now is the time to set mandatory targets for food businesses, to make healthier choices an easier choice for all.
The industry must change
Hattie Burt, Senior Policy and International Projects Officer, Action on Salt said: “This report should serve as a wake-up call to the UK government as it highlights just how far the UK is from safe levels of salt intake. Reducing salt is one of the simplest and most cost-effective public health measures, so why is the government not jumping at this opportunity to save lives and reduce pressure on our struggling healthcare system?
“The majority of salt in the UK diet comes from processed foods, so it is food industry practice that needs to change. Regulation is the most effective way of doing this, as it creates a level playing field for companies. The government must commit to mandatory salt reduction targets to limit the excessive amount of salt the food industry adds to our food.”
DIY salt reduction
Although the food industry does carry much of the responsibility, there are a number of ways we can take more care of our health by cutting our own salt intake:
We can shop for lower salt foods, e.g. comparing the nutrition labels on packaging when buying everyday items. We can cook with less salt, using alternatives to add flavour. If you’re eating in a restaurant or cafe, or ordering a takeaway, you can still eat less salt by making smart choices. And of course, you can shake less salt on your food.
No one questions that too much salt is bad for you. Yet, governments are failing to act. Strict mandatory targets seem a long way off, especially in the countries where salt consumption is highest. But we can all do something as individuals while waiting for government action.