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Study shows mixed results on salt reduction

May 28, 2015

Study shows mixed results on salt reduction

New joint research from the Heart Foundation and the University of Auckland shows food companies are making some progress in reducing salt levels but much more work is needed for New Zealand to meet global targets.

New Zealanders’ salt intake is currently around 9g/day, similar to many other western countries but well short of the World Health Organisation’s target of 5g/day by 2025.

Limiting salt consumption is important because a high intake can cause high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease.

New Zealand has committed to a 30% relative reduction in salt intake by 2025 as part of the United Nations agreement. With around 75% of the salt in our diets coming from processed foods, reducing sodium levels in the food supply is essential for lowering population sodium intakes.

A new paper, ‘Changes in the sodium content of New Zealand processed foods: 2003-2013’,

published in Nutrients today, looks at how sodium levels in processed foods have changed between

2003 and 2013.

Analysis was carried out across nine food groups, including bread; breakfast cereals; butter, margarine and dairy blends; canned corned beef; canned salmon; canned spaghetti; canned vegetables; cheese; and crackers.

For matched products (those available in both 2003 and 2013), the sodium content fell by an average of 12% (56mg/100g).

Improvements have been made in seven of the nine categories, with the biggest reductions in breakfast cereals (28%), canned spaghetti (15%) and bread (14%). The improvement in breakfast cereals is the result of large sodium reductions in children’s cereals.

Dave Monro, Heart Foundation Food Industry Setting Manager and lead author of the paper, says it is positive to see progress in the bread and breakfast cereal categories, given these are low-cost staple foods for many families.

“Bread, for example, is the leading source of salt in the New Zealand diet, accounting for around a quarter of our salt intake. It’s encouraging to see the sodium content come down by 14% in this product.”

Although salt is needed in foods for taste, texture and preserving, many foods contain hidden sources of salt, Monro says.

“People cannot taste the salt in bread and cereals, for example, which is why food companies can play an important role by reducing salt levels in these types of foods.”

The paper also shows that while supermarket-owned brands were on average higher in sodium than other brands, there were greater reductions in these products (14%) compared to other brands (12%).

It was not all good news though, with a number of categories only dropping by 10% or less over a 10-year period. Sodium levels rose by 6% in matched canned corned beef products and 2% in matched cheese products. And while margarines showed some good progress, with an average sodium reduction of 19%, butter increased by 21%.

“The increase in sodium levels of canned corned beef and cheese, and small amount of movement in

other categories is very surprising, given the global momentum around salt reduction. Food companies need to make more effort in these areas,” Monro says.

For all products assessed in 2003 and 2013, the average sodium content didn’t change (436mg in 2003 to 433mg in 2013). This is because there has been an increase in the number of products in high salt categories, like crackers, offsetting reductions made in other categories.

Co-author Dr Helen Eyles, from the University’s National Institute of Health Innovation, says increased action is needed across the whole food supply.

“We need to see a greater focus on food categories with sodium levels that have shown minimal change or that have increased since 2003, especially in food categories that are leading sources of sodium in our diet,” says Dr Eyles.

“This is essential if New Zealand is to meet its commitment to a 30% relative reduction in population sodium intake by 2025.”

Dr Eyles says that successes in the UK and Australia show that a Government-led national salt reduction strategy should be now be considered for New Zealand.

“Such a strategy should include targets for manufacturers, but also improved labelling and a public awareness campaign highlighting the impact of salt on health.”

ENDS

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