GENEVA – Parents, take note: there is a serious health risk lurking in your homes to which your children are being exposed daily – a commonplace household ingredient that features in most meals: salt. It may seem innocuous, but consuming too much salt can lead to hypertension or high blood pressure, and greatly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Salt is in almost everything we eat, from bread and cereals to cheese and cured meats. Most processed and prepared foods already contain high levels of salt, and often we add it to the foods that we make ourselves. Worldwide, salt is found on dining tables, in domestic and commercial kitchens, and in nearly all commercial food-processing facilities.
Sodium, which is present in salt, is necessary to maintain plasma volume, acid-base balance, the transmission of nerve impulses, and normal cell function. Iodized salt provides the iodine needed to prevent brain damage in children and a range of other health problems.
But most people consume far more salt than is needed to provide these health benefits. Worldwide, people consume an average of around ten grams of salt per day – double the World Health Organization’s recommended daily maximum of less than five grams (or just under one teaspoon). WHO recommends an even lower salt intake for children aged 2-15, depending on their energy needs.
High salt intake has contributed to a global increase in noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) – the leading cause of premature death in the twenty-first century. Indeed, two of the main NCDs – cardiovascular disease and stroke – are often salt-related.
If global salt consumption were reduced to the recommended level, an estimated 2.5 million deaths – equivalent to the population of Jamaica – could be prevented every year. And such efforts would be extremely cost-effective – especially given the health and economic costs associated with higher NCD rates.
With this in mind, WHO has established a 30% relative reduction in the world’s salt intake by 2025 as a target in its global action plan to support governments’ efforts to eliminate avoidable NCDs. It has also created a series of salt-reduction recommendations that could generate an extra healthy year of life for less than the average annual per capita income in low- and middle-income countries.
Everyone has a role to play in this initiative. Food manufacturers and retailers should gradually reduce the salt content in their products. Government policies can also encourage salt reduction in schools and workplaces. And civil-society groups can strengthen the impact of such policies by working with local communities to ensure that people understand the health risks of salt.
But, families and individuals have the largest role to play, for they choose what they purchase, prepare, and consume. It is up to them to adopt a few simple strategies to reduce salt intake and improve children’s chances at long, healthy lives.
1. Know how much salt you are consuming. Read food labels when purchasing processed food and check the salt levels. By purchasing products with less salt, you can compel producers and retailers to expand their offerings of such foods.
2. Do not add more salt to food. Remove the salt shaker from the table. If you want to use salt when cooking, pour out a fifth of a teaspoon and limit yourself to pinches from this amount over the course of a day. Substitute bouillon cubes, which tend to be extremely salty, with herbs and natural seasonings.
3. Leave high-salt foods for occasional use. Limit the consumption of products such as processed meats, cheeses, potato chips, ready-made meals, and condiments like soy sauce, fish sauce, and ketchup.
4. Guide your children’s tastes. Starting young children on a diet of mostly natural, unprocessed foods without added salt will teach them to enjoy healthy food throughout their lives.
If all relevant actors – including governments – do what is needed to reduce salt consumption, the health benefits will soon become apparent. Better yet, these benefits will become greater over time, as the habits of eating a healthier diet become more engrained worldwide.
Oleg Chestnov is Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health program.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.