Australians have a killer diet, prompting calls to restrict the amount of salt in certain foods.
The average Australian consumes almost double the recommended daily salt level and it’s costing the healthcare system $10 billion a year, according to a report from the Grattan Institute.
However, the Sneaky Salt report says blaming individuals for poor food choices doesn’t stack up, as many external factors push people towards certain food products and away from others.
Three quarters of the nation’s salt intake comes from food manufacturing, prompting the think tank to call on the government to introduce limits.
Voluntary limits on the amount of salt in bread and sausages were introduced in 2009, but were poorly designed and implemented, the report says.
It calls on federal and state governments to make some maximum salt limits mandatory, increase the number of food types covered by limits and measure salt content in food from bakeries and fast-food restaurants.
It also raises the possibility of exploring whether salt should be enriched with potassium because the mineral can make food taste saltier.
Salt raises blood pressure and is linked to serious conditions including hypertension, heart disease, some cancers and stroke.
Some 2500 Australians die from illness linked to salt intake each year, but the report claims the nation could collectively live an extra 36,000 years over the next two decades by cutting down.
It also claims it would help prevent 6000 hospital visits and 300 deaths per year.
What we eat is making us sicker, says Grattan Institute health program director Peter Breadon.
“If we don’t improve our diets, we won’t improve our health,” Mr Breadon said.
“Our report shows how we can improve our diets and our health quickly and cheaply – and we won’t even notice any change in the taste of our food.”
Introducing mandatory salt limits would be a slow process but was the natural next step on from strategies that targeted consumers like the health star rating system, said Deakin University nutrition sciences senior lecturer Kristy Bolton.
“We really need that top down, bottom up approach,” Dr Bolton said.
“We need the mandatory large scale food reformulation of processed foods if we really want to see a significant effect or a significant reduction in sodium consumption.”
She acknowledged there could be some pushback from industry but pointed to a recent successful project run with food giant Barilla which resulted in the company developing a low-sodium pasta sauce.
The United Kingdom and several other nations have successfully introduced salt limits.
Dr Bolton said they offered lessons as to how it could be done in Australia.
“In the UK they did have some really good incentives, government had a really clear implementation strategy to help support industry and rollout of the reformulation,” she said.
“The UK in particular also ensured that they had effective monitoring and evaluation.”
The Australian Food and Grocery Council said the industry had a long history of reformulating foods to reduce sodium levels, including through voluntary programs.
“Industry continues to explore and evaluate ways to reduce the use of salt (sodium chloride) including the use of products such as potassium chloride,” it said in a statement.
(Australian Associated Press)