At the beginning of June 2016, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) opened for public comments on their voluntary guidelines: Voluntary sodium reduction goals for industry to encourage them reduce sodium in processed, prepared and restaurant foods. This guidance affects about 150 products and it is expected to increase consumers’ control over their sodium intake both inside and outside the home.1 2 3
Sodium is an essential nutrient that controls blood pressure and is needed to make nerves and muscles work properly, but we need the right amount. The sodium intake both in Europe and US is around twice the WHO recommendations, which set a maximum of 2000 mg of sodium (5 grams of salt) a day. It is not just adults who are eating too much sodium, but also children, who often develop elevated blood pressure and kidney diseases in later life.
There is a well-documented, strong link between high sodium consumption and high blood pressure, which increases the risk of coronary heart attacks and strokes. For this reason, the WHO Member States in 2013 agreed to reduce the global population’s intake of salt by a relative 30% by 2025, against a baseline from 2010. This has been identified as one of most cost-effective measures countries can take to improve public health and prevent millions of deaths each year.4
Updating national dietary guidelines and encouraging food manufacturers to reduce the amount of salt in processed foods are important measures, however, they should not be the only ones. Personally, I would like to see more changes to the labelling system as well as the implementation of programmes that aim to raise public awareness of the potential detrimental effects to health of high sodium diets. Tips on how to lower your sodium intake should be made available to the general public, especially via public institutions, such as hospitals and schools.
European countries have adopted different salt reduction initiatives within the creation of a common European Union Framework on voluntary national salt initiatives established in 2008. Some of these initiatives are however mandatory like in Finland where labelling of notable sources of salt such as meat products, bread, and ready meals is compulsory. Moreover, some countries (such as Slovenia, Latvia, Ireland, United Kingdom, and the Netherlands) have created criteria for salt levels for mass caterers covering kindergartens, schools, and hospitals.5
Salt often contributes to the taste and texture of food, although many healthier alternatives exist. The Royal Brompton Hospital in London is an example of trying to educate patients and staff to use less salt, this includes offering whole wheat bread instead of white bread, seasoning dishes with using herbs and spices, and making soups from fresh and organic ingredients, as opposed to commercial canned soups - usually high in sodium. 6 7
From a public health perspective, the FDA initiative is a step in the right direction, but it could go further and require mandatory reductions in sodium intake. The same applies to Europe, where most people would highly benefit from cutting down on salt intake. I invite you to experiment with your dishes, and reduce salt to your taste using alternatives such as herbs and spices.
- Paola Hernández, Sustainable and Healthy Food Programme Assistant
Preview Image: Iain Watson via Flickr cc
(1) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration (2016). Draft Guidance: Voluntary Sodium Reduction Goals: Target Mean and Upper Bound Concentrations for Sodium in Commercially Processed, Packaged, and Prepared Foods: Guidance for Industry