Irish food agency ups salt slashing focus

Related tags Salt

Irish Consumers are still eating twice as much salt as they should
be and bread is one of the biggest culprits, according to a new
scientific report that recommends a UK-style labelling format and
that food firms spend more money on developing new technology to
cut salt in products, reports Chris Mercer.

The report, published by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), claims there is a direct link between dietary salt intake and raised blood pressure, a significant contributory factor to heart disease which is now responsible for around 41 per cent of all Irish deaths.

It also says that Irish adults are consuming an average of 10g of salt every day; well above the recommended maximum of six grams and more than double the recommended dietary allowance of four grams.

And bread was again named as one of the biggest offenders, making up a quarter of an adult's daily salt intake and second only to meat, which makes up almost 30 per cent. A host of other processed foods such as breakfast cereals, biscuits and dairy products.

Now, the report recommends the Irish government consider mandatory labelling on products to demonstrate those considered high in salt, similar to the new labelling initiative being designed in the UK.

It also calls on bakers and other food producers to more seriously address ways to lower salt without sacrificing taste.

The FSAI made a deal with the Irish Bread Bakers Association (IBBA) at the start of 2004 to cut product salt content by five per cent, though the food watchdog told​ last autumn that it was looking for a 10 per cent reduction by the end of the year with an acceleration of the process during 2005.

The IBBA has been co-operating with the FSAI but has warned of the need for a gradual process so as not to alienate consumers with a sudden change in taste.

But there is still a long way to go according to FSAI chief executive John O' Brien. "In the long-term, the FSAI will seek global industry reductions in salt added during processing of up to one third. "This will be a technical challenge, and requires a long-term action plan and research investment by industry. The onus is on the food industry to reduce salt levels in food in order to safeguard public health in the future,"​ he said.

The industry's job is made harder by the report's refusal to support the use of low sodium salt in products. It said the high potassium content of such 'salt substitutes' left certain groups of people, such as those with Type 1 diabetes or heart problems, too vulnerable.

This may have obvious repercussions for companies wishing to make low salt health claims on their products and the report wants the FSAI to push for clear guidelines relating to low and reduced salt claims within the EU's proposed health claims legislation.

Yet, the real thrust of the report's argument is that salt substitutes will do nothing to reduce peoples' "salt taste threshold" and this is seen as the ultimate goal.

And, contrary to industry concerns, the report believes people could be weaned off excess salt fairly rapidly.

It claims "food with a high salt content becomes unpalatable within 4-6 weeks of adopting a low salt diet,"​ and cites research from 1996 that claims an annual 10 per cent reduction in salt should be possible without adversely affecting taste.

The report also calls on the Irish Department of Health and Children to run a public salt awareness campaign, similar to that begun by the UK's Food Standards Agency last autumn. Increased consumer awareness may help food firms to benefit commercially from acting 'responsibly' to cut salt.

Dr. O' Brien welcomed the initial steps taken by the food industry to reduce salt in products: "The FSAI is now in the process of agreeing future salt reduction plans with key processed food manufacturers via Food and Drink Industry Ireland as well as major retailers and caterers."

Last autumn, the FSAI's chief specialist in food science, Dr. Wayne Anderson, told​ the food industry should take advantage of the current relaxed negotiations in Ireland compared to the more heavy-handed policy being applied in the UK.

"It's in the industry's interest to do as well as they can voluntarily and we would prefer this approach,"​ he said, without wishing to speculate on the alternative.

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