Cutting our addiction to salt, and taking time to read the labels

What can we do without salt? Most Pacific Island communities use it, as an ingredient in their various dishes, and Samoa is no different. Our mothers say salt gives “taste” to the food, and we would be doing injustice to our Island coconut-creamed cuisine without adding a pinch of salt!

And there are health benefits too that come with the consumption of salt! Research over the years have shown the importance of salt and how it is vital for the human body, especially in terms of ensuring there is fluid balance in our bodies, and it is a conduit for oxygen and other nutrients that our bodies need. While the benefits of salt consumption are noted, the issue lies in the amount that is consumed on a daily basis. 

Simply put, our consumption of salt has doubled in recent years, put at risk our own health. A World Health Organisation (WHO) report on salt, which was released close to three years ago, warned that too many people are consuming more salt in their food. The organisation estimates that, “on average 9-12 grams per day, or around twice the recommended maximum level of intake”.

The same report also highlighted the link between increased salt consumption and high blood pressure, thereby opening the door to noncommunicable diseases (NCD) such as high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. 

So what are the safe levels of salt consumption for an individual? The WHO says salt intake of less than 5 grams per day for an adult reduces the risks of blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, stroke and coronary heart attack. But it would be high blood pressure that a reduced salt intake would have the most impact on – reduced intake can equate to a risk reduction, according to the WHO report.

The WHO estimates that approximately 2.5 million deaths can be prevented annually, if global salt consumption is reduced to recommended levels.

Therefore, it is good to see Samoa’s Ministry of Health (MOH) taking a proactive approach, to tackle NCDs by agreeing to regional targets to reduce salt consumption in the region. Samoa will work in partnership with other Pacific Island nations, and have agreed to set targets to gradually reduce salt intake, in an attempt to tackle NCDs.

In yesterday’s edition of the Samoa Observer, MOH Principal Nutritionist Christina Soti-Ulberg, said Pacific Island countries have established some targets on the amount of salt that should be in different food products.

“The significance of these targets will assist Samoa and our people in combatting NCDS, and with the high salt intake it contributes to raised blood pressure and hypertension, which is a key risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

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“An example is that we have discussed with local bakeries in regards to some foods like bread and roti to meet the target that has been set of having 400 milligrams of sodium which is part of salt per hundred grams of the food.

“Other foods like canned fish which includes tuna, salmon, sardines, mackerel and other canned fish must have 430 milligrams of sodium per hundred grams of food,” she said.

Mrs. Soti-Ulberg indicated a number of strategies were discussed, including the option of forcing businesses – whose food products did not meet the targets agreed to regionally – being hit with more taxes. While those that met the targets were exempt from paying taxes.

We note that WHO member states including Samoa have agreed to a 30 per cent reduction in population sodium (salt) intake by 2025. While the deadline – though six years away – sounds ambitious, we applaud the MOH and its local and regional partners for taking the essential steps needed, to ensure those boxes are ticked. 

But the fight to tackle NCDs in Samoa – through a reduction in daily salt intake – cannot be done in isolation of the need to also have appropriate labelling on food packaging.

Consequently, the appeal by the MOH Assistant CEO (Protection and Enforcement), Mae’e Ualesi Silva, in yesterday’s edition is timely and should be heeded.

Mae’e said that the Ministry recently hosted awareness programs on the Food Act 2015 and Food Regulations 2017 – in terms of food labelling requirements – and it is time for businesses to comply. 

“The second one is to raise awareness on Food Act 2015 and Food Regulations 2017, in terms of food labelling requirements, but we are now overdue with the timeline that was given in the 2017 regulations,” she said.

Last September a WHO report estimated that about 70-80 per cent of patients seen by health professionals in Samoa had non-communicable diseases. The same report also found that 50.1 per cent of the country’s adult population is at a high risk of developing a noncommunicable disease, and over 70 per cent of the population never had their blood pressure or blood glucose levels measured. 

The statistics highlighted in the WHO report are worrying and we can take the first step towards addressing some of those concerns on the dangers of the NCDs by eating wisely and smartly – by reducing our salt intake and taking the time to read food packaging labels, to ensure the contents are healthy and will not impact on our health over the long-term period.

Have a wonderful Tuesday Samoa and God bless.

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