Reducing salt in food products and at the table can reduce chronic diseases at a cost of pennies per person
Santiago, Chile, 16 November 2009 - An expert group convened by the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) called today on food manufacturers, consumers, and governments to take action to cut dietary salt consumption, saying this is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce chronic diseases.
"High blood pressure is the number-one risk factor for death globally and the number-two risk factor for disability," said Norm Campbell, a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary and chairman of the PAHO/WHO expert group. "Salt consumption is driving up blood pressure in people of all ages, and lowering salt intake at the population level is among the most cost-effective ways to reduce chronic disease."
In the Americas, from one-fifth to one-third of all adults have hypertension. Left untreated, the condition can lead to heart disease, stroke, and kidney failure. Worldwide, hypertension accounts for about 10 percent of all healthcare expenditures.
Members of the expert group said reducing salt consumption at the population level requires an investment of as little as 4 cents per person per year, making it one of the most cost-effective measures for reducing chronic diseases.
The experts emphasized that adding salt at the table is not the only problem. In most populations, the largest amount of dietary salt comes from ready-made and prepared foods, including processed meats, canned foods, cookies and crackers, breads, and even breakfast cereals.
The experts applauded food processors who have already begun to lower salt content in their products. But they noted that others have yet to take action and called for across-the-board reformulation of products to achieve a "gradual and sustained reduction" in salt content and to make sure that all new food products are inherently low in salt.
The group's statement, issued today in Santiago, Chile, included these specific recommendations for action by governments, nongovernmental organizations, and PAHO/WHO:
For civil society organizations:
- Develop salt reduction programs and integrate them into existing government-supported food, nutrition, health, and education efforts.
- Mandate or encourage standardized food labeling so consumers can easily identify high- and low-salt foods.
- Educate people, including children, about the risks of salt and how to reduce salt intake.
- Collaborate with the food industry and use regulation or incentives to achieve gradually decreasing targets for salt content in processed foods.
- Regulate or encourage food makers to limit the level of salt in all their food products to the lowest level currently available in each food category.
- Review and revise national salt fortification policies to align them with the international recommendation on salt intake of less than 5 grams per day per person or with a national target, whichever is lower.
For the food industry:
- Endorse the group's policy statement.
- Educate their members as well as policymakers on the health risks of high salt consumption and how to reduce salt intake.
- Advocate policies and regulations aimed at population-wide reductions in dietary salt.
- Make low-salt products standard across global markets as soon as possible.
- Make salt substitutes readily available at affordable prices.
- Establish schedules for reformulating products to gradually reduce salt to recommended target levels. Make all new food products inherently low-salt.
- Use standard, easy-to-understand food labels that include information on salt content.
- Promote the health benefits of low salt diets to the public.
The 18 members of the PAHO/WHO Regional Expert Group on Cardiovascular Disease Prevention through Dietary Salt Reduction are leading experts on nutrition and chronic diseases from universities, government agencies, and research institutions in North, South, and Central America, the Caribbean, and Europe.
- Work with member countries to develop "national report cards" to monitor and compare progress on salt reduction.
- Spearhead a network of endorsing governments, NGOs, and experts in the Pan American region.
- Help member countries revise salt fortification programs to be consistent with salt-reduction efforts.
- Advocate policies and regulations that will lead to population-wide reductions in dietary salt.
A similar expert group convened by PAHO in 2007 called for the elimination of trans fatty acids from industrially processed foods throughout the Americas (see link below).
PAHO was established in 1902 and is the world's oldest public health organization. It works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of life of the people of the Americas and serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO).
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