The World Health Organisation has released a set of guidelines to reduce salt intake by keeping a check on the salt levels across different food groups.
Salt, along with adding flavour to our lives, is essential to maintain homeostasis and ensure proper neural functioning in our bodies. Sodium helps in various processes like fluid circulation, preserving cell integrity, maintaining ionic and blood pressure homeostasis. However, over-consumption of salt can lead to non-communicable diseases such as strokes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, chronic urinary disorders etc, that kill around 3 million people annually. Most people consume double the amount of salt that is recommended by the WHO (5g per day).
On 5th May, 2021, WHO released a set of new benchmarks to reduce the sodium content in several foods. The organisation aims to achieve a 30% reduction in global salt consumption by 2025. Packaged foods contain the most amount of salt. Many countries rely on packaged foods as they are affordable. The WHO benchmarks plans to reformulate the salt content of over 60 types of packaged foods, including packaged bread, savoury snacks, meat products and cheese. WHO also plans to harmonise the benchmarks globally as the amount of sodium for a certain food can vary across different countries.
Along with several healthcare experts, WHO assessed the existing patterns of salt consumption, considered which food groups need to be reformulated to reduce sodium levels and prioritised them. The benchmarks were established based on these parameters. Data was collected from 41 countries which gave an idea about the current sodium consumption patterns and which are the common foods that contributed to it. They categorised the food groups into 18 overall categories and 97 subcategories.
The benchmarks were set per subcategory and not the overall category. Setting the targets by food sub-categories would help with being specific and hence provide achievable targets. Benchmarks are defined based on concentration and not on sales or consumption as it is a more transparent approach making it easier to monitor and evaluate. According to the benchmarks, food items like potato chips should have 500 mg of sodium per 100 g, for processed meat, up to 340 mg and for cheese up to 720mg.
There are some limitations these benchmarks need to overcome. In a review published in Pediatric Nephrology, researchers address some of the contradicting contributions of sodium in our body. The positive effects of sodium on blood pressure have been extensively researched. Also, Sodium sensitivity is individualistic and it is not observed in every person. Some patients experience major blood pressure fluctuations even when they consume a low sodium diet. Certain patients suffer from a sodium deficiency (hyponatremia). Some research suggests that there is an association between salt and autoimmune disorders. In conclusion, for salt-sensitive risk groups in the population, even stricter limits of sodium consumption should be set than for young, healthy individuals.
Lowering sodium consumption is a powerful way of reducing the occurrence of cardiovascular diseases and other diet and nutrition-related non-communicable diseases. In order to achieve this goal, progress needs to happen at a much faster rate. By setting these benchmarks and timelines and enabling the decision makers to put forth policies can help with reducing the issues caused by excessive salt intake.
The WHO Global Sodium benchmarks serve to help the food and beverage industry improve the food environment globally, as it has previously worked with reducing industrially-produced trans-fatty acids. They are drafted to complement the ongoing local nutrition initiatives and to serve as a reference for such initiatives, where needed. The benchmarks will be presented and discussed at The United Nations Food Systems Summit in September, 2021.
“We need countries to establish policies to reduce salt intake and provide people with the information they need to make the right food choices. We also need the food and beverage industry to cut sodium levels in processed foods. WHO’s new benchmarks give countries and industry a starting point to review and establish policies to transform the food environment and save lives,” claims Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of WHO.