Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Less salt, more consumer information please!

As part of her work for World Salt Awareness Week, Public Health Nutritionist Clare Farrand explains the need for clear food labelling on a global scale.

We are all eating too much salt, and it’s damaging our health. Salt puts up our blood pressure, which leads to strokes and heart attacks, and is also linked to kidney disease, stomach cancer and osteoporosis. I can’t remember the last time I picked up a salt shaker, or caught a glimpse of the white stuff (people tend to hide it when I visit), but just because I don’t use it doesn’t mean I don’t have to worry about my salt intake. That’s because most of the salt that we eat (75%) is hidden in the foods that we buy. 

And I’m not just talking about the foods that taste salty; it’s in the most surprising places such as bread, breakfast cereals, soups, sandwiches, cheese, biscuits, and pastries. Of course, as a nutritionist, I am trained in the art of cracking over-complicated food labels, translating ‘sodium’ to ‘salt’, and know how much salt is high, medium or low, so I shouldbe able to understand what is in my food. But for everyone else, how can you  choose to eat less salt?  

This is why clear food labelling is so important. If  nutrition information was presented in a consistent, easy-to-use way across all products, in all supermarkets, in all  food establishments (eg, restaurants, fast food chains, cafes, and takeaways) in all the land, then we would be able to find out what we are eating. But it is not. Even in the UK where most of the food that we buy in the supermarkets is labelled, the language on the label is often so complicated that most consumers are left confused rather than informed. 

In my opinion, the food industry has a responsibility to tell us what they are putting in our food so that we know what we are eating. In fact, not only do they have a responsibility to tell us what is in our food, they also have a moral obligation to ensure that what they do put in our food is not going to damage our health. 
What is worrying though is that if we did have clear and consistent labelling, and all of our food was shown to be high in salt, fat, and sugar, we STILL wouldn’t have a choice

That said, in the UK there has been lots of good work going on to tackle this issue. Many food manufacturers are now starting to gradually reduce the amount of salt in our foods; old favourites such as Kellogg’s Cornflakes and HP Sauce are much less salty than they used to be, also new brands of lower salt foods like Seabrook reduced-salt crisps and Hampstead Farms no-salt sauces are now available.

Sadly this is not  the case around the world. Salt reductions have been made in the UK due to the successful programme that has been in effect since 2005, and through the work of CI member organisation Consensus Action on Salt and Health who continually put pressure on the food industry to reduce the amount of salt they add to our food (see recent survey on pizza). 

What we really need to do now is spread this action worldwide. Many food manufacturers that sell foods in the UK are global organisations. Therefore, the reductions they have made in the UK should easily be made elsewhere. There is no reason why the UK should be so privileged! We must continue to demand less salt and call for clearer food labelling – especially in countries where there currently is none. After all, if we are to take responsibility for our own health, we at least need the information to do so. 

Until the food industry removes the excessive amounts of salt they put in our food, I will be cooking from scratch. After all, if I want to eat salt, I can always add it myself.

So this week, World Salt Awareness Week, let’s all ask for “Si’isi’iange masima”, or, “less salt please”.

Clare Farrand is a Public Health Nutritionist for the salt reduction charity, World Action on Salt and Health (WASH), a global organisation with the mission to reduce population level salt intake around the world.