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With a pinch of salt

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May 31, 2012 | From the print edition

Fast food can be made less salty, finds research. But companies refuse to do so

Claims made by fast food giants that they cannot reduce the high salt content in their products, which is a serious health concern, have been belied by a study.

Transnational food chains have all along held that making their products less salty would pose technological problems as it would entail adjustments in other processing parameters. They also claim that reducing salt would compromise taste. Salt plays an important role in food processing—it improves taste, texture and acts as a preservative. But the joint study by senior health researchers in six countries has convincingly nailed companies’ lie. The research proves that companies are capable of making these adjustments. The crunchy nuggets that McDonald’s sells in the UK have two-and-a-half times less salt than the same nuggets it sells in the US. In fact in the UK, where food regulators have taken up salt reduction as priority, most products have far less salt than in the US.

Researchers studied the nutritional information provided on the websites of six leading fast food chains for seven food categories in Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, the US and the UK. They collected data on 2,124 products categorised as breakfast items (burger, roll, sandwich, hash brown), burgers, chicken products, pizza, salads, sandwiches and potato fries sold by Domino’s, KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Subway and Burger King.

They measured the salt content in every serving and in every 100 g. The variations—among food categories, companies and countries—were greater when measured per serving than when measured per 100g.

This, researchers explain, was due to non-uniformity in the serving sizes. Large serving means more salt. In Australia, a Hawaiian pizza at Domino’s is not more than 65 g, almost one-sixth of a Double Whopper at Burger King in Canada.

Some chicken products and burgers had more than 6 g of salt per serving; some salads had more than 7 g per serving. The saltiest sandwich had around 8 g of salt per serving, while the saltiest pizza had 10 g. World Health Organization (WHO) targets reduction of the per capita salt intake to 5 g per day. Researchers also found huge variations in the salt content of the same products that companies sell in different countries. Similarly, the same company uses varied amount of salt in its different products (see ‘Variations overload’).

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“Through the study we wanted to highlight that even in very similar products salt content varies greatly,” says lead researcher Elizabeth Dunford, who works with the Australian division of World Action on Salt and Health. “It is expected that there would be difference between different types of products, but it is less expected that there would be such large differences between similar products,” she adds.

The study, published in Canadian Medical Association Journal in April, was based on the information provided by companies on their websites. This could be misleading, the Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found.

In a lab study of salt, sugar and fat content in junk foods available in India, CSE found the levels varied considerably from the information companies provided on their websites or the product labels (see ‘Eat at your own risk’, Down To Earth, April 1-15, 2012).

Double standards

Clearly, there are double standards at play. On its website in the US, McDonald’s gives information on as many as 22 nutritional attributes of food products, like protein, carbohydrate and sugar. In India, however, the company provides information only on six. Pizza Hut’s website in the US provides 12 nutritional attributes, which include the serving size and the salt content. Its Indian website provides six attributes, and mentions the salt content but not the serving size. KFC’s US website provides information on 12 nutritional attributes, including the serving size, but for India it gives only four nutritional attributes. In India, no fast food chain except McDonald’s gives the serving size on its website.

This proves that health is not on the radar of fast food companies, says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of CSE. Companies can get away with serving high amounts of salt because India has no regulation, he adds.

UK, Finland show the way

The human body requires very little sodium, which is sourced mainly from salt. High salt intake can cause blood pressure to shoot up and lead to cardiovascular diseases. According to WHO, there is enough evidence that reducing salt intake can minimise the risk of hypertension and cardiovascular diseases. The National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) recommends not more than six grams salt per person per day. People around the world eat a lot more salt than is required.

In India, salt consumption varies between 5 g and 30 g per person per day, says NIN. The average salt consumption in the US by those above two years is around 8.6 g per day, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Australia, men consume about 10 g salt per day, while women’s daily intake is 7 g, according to Australian division of World Action on Salt and Health.

In the US, 77 per cent of salt intake comes through processed food, says American Heart Association. Over 100,000 lives could be saved annually if salt levels in packaged and restaurant foods are halved, says Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a US-based non-profit. In its letter to the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), it says reduction of salt consumption from 3,400 milligrams (mg) per day to 2,300 mg per day could cut medical costs by about $18 billion per year.

To improve public health, USFDA must reduce sodium levels in food supply, says Michael F Jacobson, executive director of CSPI, in a press release. “We urge FDA to issue strong rules that will protect Americans’ health,” he says.

In Canada, the contribution of processed food to dietary salt is 77 per cent, according to Statistics Canada, the country’s national statistical agency.

In India, Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industries conducted a study in the country’s major cities and found that 86 per cent of the households preferred instant food over home cooked food. Eighty-five per cent familes with children below five years of age ate ready-to-eat meals seven to 10 times a month.

The UK and Finland have shown the way to a healthier lifestyle. The UK managed to reduce salt consumption of its people by 0.9 g per day. The Finnish government launched a project in North Karelia over 30 years ago and reduced the average salt consumption by one-third.

Salt content in food items of transnational chains varies from one country to another. “This means there is scope for reducing the salt content,” says Anoop Misra, chairperson of National Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation. Strict regulations from government on food labelling can help solve this, he adds.

AddThis

This is very true. Although salt is a functional ingredient in many foods, particularly highly processed foods, there is intensive research into finding alternatives. And after considerable R&D, it has been possible to formulate ingredients which can substitute salt in many of its roles (ie. imparting taste, improving texture etc.). But the fact of the matter is, salt is inexpensive to procure; so it boils down to the simple math of profit. This is despite the fact that large companies with enormous resources and revenue at their disposal (sayfor example, McD) can easily switch to alternatives if they really wanted to.

Another factor is the Food Standards Agency (UK's regulatory body for food and drink), National Health Service (UK's state run medical care provider) and other such government agencies have pursued the issue of salt reduction systematically and diligently. They have made consumers more aware of healthy eating and the benefits of reducing salt in their diet. Equally of importance is the UK food industry's proactive approach towards the issue.

In short, reducing salt in a recipe for a product (especially highly processed foods) might seem like a minor detail in the larger picture and may even appear simplistic. But in reality, it takes concerted effort and awareness on the part of all stakeholders (government, regulatory agencies, food manufacturers and retailers and consumers) to make a substantial change on a large scale.

28 May 2012
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