Salt is treacherous. We need it, but it’s potentially lethal. It’s been labelled the single most dangerous substance in our food, yet its threat to our health is ignored.
The link between salt consumption and a healthy heart is very clear. High dietary salt intake is associated with a range of heart related diseases. Existing and historical evidence suggests that a high dietary intake of salt contributes to a rise in blood pressure that occurs with increasing age in Western nations, and promotes the development of hypertension. Raised blood pressure is one of the most common and preventable risk factors for cardiovascular disease. According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 2.5 million deaths could be prevented each year if global salt consumption were reduced to the recommended levels.
In Australia, one in four adults have high blood pressure, which equates to about four million Australians. Of these, more than two thirds have uncontrolled or unmanaged high blood pressure (i.e. are not taking medication), representing 3.1 million adult Australians.
High blood pressure is the most common of all the diseases of the circulatory system and is the leading risk factor for heart disease, deaths and disability in Australia. Heart disease in Australia remains the single leading cause of death, with more than 45,000 deaths attributed in 2015.
Yet Australians are eating nearly double the recommendation of the World Health Organisation of 5 grams of salt per day. It’s no surprise then that salt and the resulting health care costs associated with high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease cost the Australian Government 7.6 billion dollars in 2008-09.
The World Health Organisation has set a global target of a 30% reduction in average salt consumption by 2025. Salt reduction is seen as an ‘easy win’ for Governments to prevent and control non-communicable diseases as it is a practical, low cost initiative that can save lives. However, despite the many health benefits of salt reduction, policy and law makers face inherent issues when translating the vast array of evidence into public health reform.
With 75% of salt coming from manufactured foods we consume, rather than added at the table or in cooking, working with the food industry is essential. Food reformulation needs to be propelled from Government with the use of salt targets, like those previously set in the Australian Food and Health Dialogue, and the planned work of the Australian Healthy Food Partnership. Voluntary salt targets haven’t been as successful in Australia as they have been in the United Kingdom. The food industry is still best placed to improve the food supply and thus the health of all Australian’s.
However, food manufacturers both small and large are motivated by their bottom dollar. They may see reducing salt in their products as a risk that could put them at a competitive disadvantage and affect sales due to consumers’ taste. Recent evidence however, has shown that significant reductions in salt contents of up to 40% in breads and 70% in processed meats are possible without significantly impacting consumer acceptability.
There may also be concerns regarding food safety, as historically salt has been utilised in food processing and manufacturing for not only taste and texture but to extend shelf life. However, salts’ ability to lower microbial growth in foods has now been made obsolete, as the majority of foods are stored in refrigerators and freezers. Salt will continue to play an important role in the texture of food (like bread) but efforts to keep salt levels reasonable will help to balance food technology and health impacts.
Salt Awareness Week runs from March 20-26th and the Heart Foundation is calling on the Australian Government to make a stronger commitment to the public by making salt targets mandatory and working with industry to reformulate their products in a staged approach.