Under pressure

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Adjunct Professor John G Kelly, AM

Group CEO, National Heart Foundation of Australia
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John joined the Heart Foundation in August 2016. Previous to that, he led sector reform for aged care as CEO of Aged and Community Services Australia. He has extensive clinical, management and consulting background in the health sector, including previous careers in law and in cardiac nursing and current academic appointments with the Sydney Nursing School and the University of Technology, Sydney.

Civilisations have been built on it, battles waged over it. We’ve traded it, taxed it, preserved our food with it and used it to fight disease. The Romans even paid their soldiers with it (hence the word “salary”). Its history is inseparable from ours. It also makes things taste really good. But a little salt goes a long way. Or it should.

The Heart Foundation and VicHealth recently released Australia’s first practical guide to help Australian food manufacturers reduce salt in processed and packaged products. The salt reformulation guide is the latest push in the Heart Foundation’s long campaign to promote policies and strategies to cut our salt consumption to safer, healthier levels.

Don’t get me wrong – we need salt in our diets. Without the sodium it contains, our nerves and muscles wouldn’t work properly, and we’d have trouble regulating the balance of fluids in our organs. But the flipside is that too much salt can hurt or even kill us. And these days we eat way too much. The recommended daily salt intake is less than a teaspoon (5 grams). Australians consume nearly twice that.

Too much salt is linked to high blood pressure, which in turn increases our risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney disease. With one in three Australians living with high blood pressure, the potential costs, in human terms and to the health system, are enormous. Excess salt also increases our risk of osteoporosis and stomach cancer.

This is not exactly news. We already know we eat too much salt – and we want to eat less. A recent study found nearly half of Australians surveyed were very concerned about the amount of salt in their diets, and nine in 10 knew that salt was bad for their health.

Cutting back can be challenging. To start with, taste is not a good guide to a food’s salt content. The more salt we eat, the less we notice it. Over time our taste buds habituate to higher levels of sodium.

But the main reason salt is difficult to monitor is that most of the sodium we put into our bodies is stowed away in processed and packaged foods – the sort we lug home every time we go to the supermarket. We don’t see it, we barely taste it, but this hidden cargo makes up 75 per cent of the salt in our diets.

It’s not just the obvious culprits – chips, crackers, bacon – but seemingly benign choices including frozen meals, pasta sauces, tinned soups and bread. Even sweet treats: cakes, biscuits, frozen desserts.

The best way for consumers to monitor their intake and that of their families is to read the Nutrition Information Panel on the back of the packet and choose a product with less than 400mg per 100g. But it is not just up to individuals. Governments and manufacturers must also play their parts.

In Australia, we still have a way to go.

To this end, the new guide, Reformulation Readiness: A best practice guide to salt reduction for Australian food manufacturers, provides information and support for Australian manufacturers to cut the sodium in their products and work towards meeting World Health Organization daily salt consumption targets and, increasingly, consumer expectations. Developed as part of the  Victorian Salt Reduction Partnership, the guide includes tips on nutritional composition, salt targets and product improvement and testing.

We know that campaigns like this work. The UK now has one of the lowest salt intakes in the developed word. Following a ground-breaking program, their consumption dropped by 15 per cent over a decade – that’s an estimated 9000 early deaths forestalled a year.

As my colleague Kellie-Ann Jolly, CEO Heart Foundation Victoria, points out, this is a timely resource for the Australian food industry, with the Federal Government finalising its recommended sodium targets across a range of food categories. She has urged the government to release the voluntary targets as soon as possible.

In the meantime, I urge you to enjoy your week. Live well, work well and eat well. Just go easy on the salt.