Washington, D.C., January 16, 2009 (PAHO) — A group of international nutrition and health experts convened by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) says that cutting the amount of salt in people's diets could save thousands of lives and improve the health of millions in the Western Hemisphere and around the world.
"With a reduction of up to one-half in daily salt consumption—something that is perfectly feasible— we estimate about 30 million people in the Americas could avoid hypertension and also reduce medical costs, heart attacks, and strokes," said James Hospedales, PAHO senior advisor on disease prevention and control.
Hospedales and other experts met in Miami earlier this month to develop a set of recommendations on reducing salt consumption in the Americas. The meeting was sponsored by PAHO and the Public Health Agency of Canada. Both Canada and the United States have recently established national commissions or task forces to take action to reduce dietary salt consumption.
Salt is an essential nutrient, but people need it only in small quantities. Consumption of more than 5 to 6 grams of salt per day increases blood pressure and with it the risk of heart attacks and stroke. PAHO/WHO estimates that high blood pressure leads to some 7 million premature deaths each year worldwide.
The problem is not just salt added by consumers. "The biggest challenge is the invisible salt that comes in processed foods and meats, which consumers have little control over," says Enrique Jacoby, PAHO regional advisor on healthy eating and healthy living. "Nearly two-thirds of consumed salt is in this form. Specifically, we're talking about bread, prepared foods, fresh meats, and even breakfast cereals, among other things, which have a lot of salt added to make them taste better."
WHO has called on all the countries of the world to reduce salt consumption to no more than 5 grams per day per person. In many countries of the Americas, salt consumption is three times that recommended level. Jacoby cites several examples: in Brazil and Ecuador, average daily consumption is 10 grams per person; in Argentina, it is 12.5 grams; and in Guatemala, 19 grams.
The experts meeting in Miami said that reducing salt consumption at the population level would be one of the most cost-effective public health interventions available. Yet high-level decision-makers and the public in general have not given this issue the attention it deserves, they said.
Participants also discussed the role of salt as a vehicle for providing iodine and fluoride, a common practice in the Americas that would have to be reviewed as part of efforts to reduce dietary salt.
"Much remains to be done in this area," said Hospedales following the Miami meeting. "But I am favorably impressed with the evidence and the interest in working together, and in the possibility of achieving our goals through joint efforts by governments, industry and civil society."
Participants in the meeting acknowledged that changing the behavior and habits of tens of millions of consumers is a major challenge, especially given the rapid growth in availability and consumption of processed foods, as opposed to fresh "natural" foods. They said to achieve such changes, public health experts need to work with governments and the food industry in areas such as public education, food labeling, health warnings, and the reduction or elimination of unhealthy ingredients such as trans fatty acids from industrially produced foods.
The Miami meeting is part of ongoing efforts by PAHO to promote healthy eating and active lifestyles to combat the growing epidemics of obesity and chronic diseases in its member countries. To advance these efforts, PAHO is working with other public and private individuals and organizations in the design and implementation of public health information and awareness campaigns at the national, subregional, and hemispheric levels.
The Pan American Health Organization, founded in 1902, works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of life of their peoples. It serves as the Regional Office of the World Health Organization (WHO).