Reduction in industry’s salt use could save South African lives

FRV-Event-Salt-Dr-Gwen-Ramokgopa-deputy-minister-of-the-department-of-HealthThe Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa hosted a Salt Summit in partnership with Unilever on 13 March at the Hilton Hotel in Sandton, Johannesburg with the aim of starting a dialogue to educate consumers on the dangers of salt.

Representatives from various interest groups – academia, NGOs, government, media, healthcare groups and the food industry – contributed to the discussion.

In a national awareness drive these stakeholders hope to collaborate in educating South Africans on how to break the salt habit. A September 2012 study by the SA Medical Journal found that thousands of lives could be saved in the country every year by simply lowering the salt content of food. At the moment South Africans continue to increase their discretionary salt intake, making them susceptible to life-threatening diseases such as stroke and heart disease.

Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSF) explains that the country’s salt challenge cannot be tackled by one group alone. He hopes to see increased collaboration between industry, government, public health organisations and the scientific community to positively influence consumer behaviour.

The food and beverage industries have shown its awareness of salt reduction initiatives when it met with the department of Health earlier on the new salt legislation, which was gazetted in March 2013. Dr Gwen Ramokgopa, the deputy minister of Health, who spoke at the event, says this shows the industry is interested in manufacturing products that contribute to consumer health.

Striking a taste balance

The main objective of the summit was to get key stakeholders to commit to the government’s salt reduction initiative. One of the major sponsors for the event, global FMCG giant Unilever has already expressed its goal of helping more than one billion people worldwide take action to improve their health and well-being by 2020.

The company plans to achieve this by increasing the availability of lower salt foods that are attractive to consumers. ‘We are striving to achieve this by changing recipes that require reduced usage of salt and using salt replacements and enhancing flavours with other ingredients like herbs and spices,’ explains Marcos Nakagawa, vice president for Foods at Unilever.

Carla Hilhorst, vice president of research and development at Unilever’s Foods Europe division, warns that the reformulation process is not straightforward.

‘It is of critical importance that a product’s taste is maintained throughout this process,’ says Hilhorst. The danger is that consumers will stop using a new low salt version of a product and go to other products with greater flavour, albeit greater sodium content.

‘A salt or sodium reduced claim on the packaging of a food product makes it less attractive to consumers. Consumers think these products have less flavour,’ explains Hilhorst. She says striking a balance between salt reductions and maintaining taste, as well as creating a consumer demand for healthier products, should make these products more popular.

‘The key strategy for salt reduction is reformulation with a focus on gradual adaption. It is important to make consumers used to the new taste.’

Image description – Dr Gwen Ramokgopa, deputy minister of the department of Health, has encouraged the food and beverage industry to manufacture products that contribute to consumer health.