The tasty and abundant food additive that’s killing Australians
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It’s tasty, mostly invisible and an essential part of a healthy diet, but researchers say the average Australian is consuming almost double the maximum recommended daily amount of salt.
A new report from think tank the Grattan Institute says more than 2500 Australians die each year from illnesses caused by a high salt intake and is calling for mandatory salt limits for processed foods.
Steph Sparks with her children Henry, 7, and Sid, 9, who have previously been fussy eaters.Credit: Wayne Taylor
The recommended daily intake of salt is no more than five grams, but the average Australian consumes about 9.6 grams a day, research has found. The body only needs one or two grams a day to function.
The Grattan Institute says given that three-quarters of the salt in Australians’ diets is added during food manufacturing, mandatory limits on how much can be added to processed food is the most logical way to tackle the problem.
Australia has voluntary salt limits for 32 food categories. For example, processed cheeses should only have 1.27 grams of sodium per 100 grams, soups 0.28 grams and gravies 0.45 grams.
However, the researchers, who on Monday published a new report titled Sneaky salt: How Australia can shake its salt habit, say most eligible products are not participating and even fewer have been reformulated as a result.
Grattan Institute health program director Peter Breadon says many salty processed food categories are also not covered by the voluntary limit, including butter and margarine, baked beans, pre-packaged sandwiches and canned vegetables.
The institute is calling on the federal government to make existing voluntary salt limits mandatory by 2027, and for voluntary limits to be expanded to match those in the UK, which cover 85 categories of common food.
Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care Ged Kearney met the report’s authors and said the federal government was committed to working with public health and industry bodies to reduce sodium levels in food.
“It is widely acknowledged that Australians are being exposed to unhealthy levels of sodium in the food they’re eating,” Kearney said.
We all need a little bit of sodium, one of the key ingredients of salt, to survive. Too much of it, however, can lead to serious health problems.
Professor Steve Nicholls, a leading Australian cardiologist and director of the Victorian Heart Hospital, says excess salt can contribute to high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart failure, heart attacks and strokes.
Salt is contained in many of the processed food we eat.Credit: Istock
“We also know that salt consumption is associated with a higher risk of kidney disease, and kidney disease in its own right will then increase the risk of heart disease,” Nicholls says.
Salt was responsible for more than 1000 coronary heart disease deaths in 2018, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Steph Sparks, a mother of two boys and a qualified baker and pastry chef, believes mandatory limits in processed foods would make it easier for parents trying to limit their children’s salt intake.
“The worry for me is if my children are eating a high-salt diet now … that’s really going to set them up for a salty palate and a lot of problems later in life,” she says.
There are other ways to add flavour to food.Credit: iStock
But Sparks says mandates or health labels are not the only solution. She spends time educating her children about food and what’s in it. She also says salt, in moderation, has been a useful way to help her sons eat healthy whole foods.
“Sid, [her eldest son], for example, he will eat cucumber, but he prefers it with a little sprinkle of salt on it.”
Dietitian and nutritionist Marie-France Laval, who specialises in children who are fussy eaters and helped Sparks’ family, also suggests to parents who are struggling with their children’s diet that they consider using other flavours to make food more appetising, such as honey, vanilla, cheese, and butter, and caramelising food in the cooking process.
She says many of the parents she has helped have not had a lot of time to cook, which perhaps supports the call for salt limits in processed food. Ideally, however, parents would be trying to avoid relying on processed foods, she says.
Nicholls, president of the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand, says he advises his adult patients to read the back of supermarket products to check the salt (or sodium) content and to think twice about adding extra salt at the dinner table, noting takeaway meals are likely to have higher amounts of salt.
The Grattan Institute, meanwhile, is calling on governments to promote “healthier salt” enriched with potassium.
“The sodium is the part of salt that is harmful. And so instead of having sodium chloride in the salt, [you can replace some of it] with potassium chloride. That way you retain the salty taste, but you actually reduce the harmful sodium,” Breadon says.
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