WHO Calls on European Countries to Mandate Reduced Salt in Processed Foods – ‘To Save Lives’
Processed foods are a major drive for excess salt consumption.

More than one in three adults in WHO’s European Region aged 30-79 has hypertension, or high blood pressure – and a key factor is excess consumption of salt, according to a new WHO report published this week.

The report “Action on Salt and Hypertension,” calls on governments to take “mandatory” measures to reduce the public’s salt intake, including much tougher limits on the salt content of processed foods.

“From the food industry’s perspective, high-salt foods tend to yield the most profit,” states the WHO press release accompanying the report. “But the fact is that these foods put customers’ health at risk. Population-level salt reduction through mandatory reformulation produces rapid results, is feasible, is cost-saving and ultimately saves lives.”

Cardiovascular disease, including hypertension, ischaemic heart disease and related ailments, currently kill some 10,000 people a day in WHO’s European Region, which includes some 53 member states from Great Britain to central Asia.

According to the new report, produced by WHO’s European Regional Office, men are almost 2.5 times more likely to die from cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) than women.  And the probability of premature death (30-69) from CVDs is almost five times higher in eastern Europe and central Asia as compared to Western Europe.

And 52 out of 53 countries in the European Region have an average daily salt intake above the WHO recommended maximum level of 5 grams (around one teaspoon) per day. The highest levels of salt consumption are in central Asia, the Russian Federation and eastern Europe. Tiny Malta is the sole country meeting the WHO guidelines.

Malta is the sole country in the 53 member European Region that meets WHO guidelines for salt intake.

“CVDs and hypertension are largely preventable – and controllable,” said Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “Four million, a staggering figure, is the number of deaths caused by cardiovascular diseases every single year – primarily in men, particularly in the eastern part of our WHO region.

“These are the facts, but this is something we can change….. Implementing targeted policies to reduce salt intake by 25% could save an estimated 900 000 lives from CVDs by 2030.”

‘Opposing fundamental interests’

Street food and processed foods are amongst the leading culprits of excess salt consumption, the WHO report concludes. And therefore “regulating the amount of salt in processed foods has the potential to have a positive impact on people’s health.”

The report recommends that governments therefore introduce mandatory policies to reduce salt intake – including tougher limits on the amount of salt permitted in common processed and manufactured foods; on foods prepared and sold to the public in canteens and food outlets; as well as better labelling of foods sold to consumers in groceries.

“Reducing salt at population level highlights the opposing fundamental interests of public health and the food industry,” the report states.”From a food industry perspective focused on profit, salt contributes to food safety by increasing shelf-life and is a cheap way to make food more palatable.

“In addition, the body gets used to the taste of salt and craves food with a higher salt content. It is these high-salt foods that tend to yield the most profit. In contrast, the public health perspective is focused on the significant health and economic costs to society caused by high salt intake.

“The food industry can lobby for limiting reductions in salt, sugar and fat content of food, as well as influence the private health sector which may have less interest in prevention if payment is based on treatments provided. When facing industry opposition, it is important that policy-makers remember that population-level salt reduction through reformulation produces rapid results, is feasible, is cost-saving and ultimately saves lives.”

Image Credits: WHO/S. Volkiv, WHO/Action on Salt and Hypertension.

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