Shake the salt out of our diets


There is little sign that Irish people are being weaned off their fondness for salt, the latest figures from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) show. PAUL CULLEN, Consumer Affairs Correspondent, reports

“Irish people now consume 9.56g of salt a day – equivalent to 3.5kg a year. That’s still way off the FSAI’s target for salt consumption of 6g a day, and more than twice the recommended daily intake of 4g

THE FSAI and the food industry both say great progress has been made in reducing consumption levels but the figures tell a different story, and the reality is that six years of efforts to reduce salt consumption has made barely a dent on our love affair with salt.

On average, Irish people now consume 9.56g of salt a day – equivalent to 3.5kg a year – a hardly noticeable drop from 10g per day in 2003.

That’s still way off the FSAI’s stated target for salt consumption of 6g a day, and more than twice the recommended daily intake of 4g. It’s also higher than the UK intake of 8.6g a day.

The conclusion is inescapable; for all the mutual congratulations and backslapping, the food industry hasn’t delivered significantly lower-salt versions of the goods people buy in the greatest number. Meanwhile, consumers have been slow to switch to alternatives that are lower in salt.

This matters because excessive salt intake is a major contributor to heart disease and stroke; indeed, the link between salt and heart disease is even stronger than that between smoking and cancer.

No doubt some of us still reach for the salt cellar too often but, in general, consumers can’t be blamed for directly adding large amounts of salt to their diet, as only 20 per cent of overall intake arises in this discretionary fashion.

The nub of the problem, therefore, lies with the increasing amount of processed food in our diet and its reliance on added salt to provide flavour and keep food fresh.

The salt-reduction programme has made some progress, especially with the more committed food companies, but now there are clear signs that it is faltering.

The number of participating companies has dropped from 72 to 63 in the space of a year, and some of those still on the list are no longer actively communicating with the FSAI.

The authority acknowledges a waning of interest, which it attributes to difficulties caused by the recession. Yet the commitment of the food industry is also affected by a belief that it isn’t easy to reduce limits any further, either because of technical limitations or because it won’t wash with consumers.

“The low-hanging fruit have been done,” says Paul Kelly, director of Food and Drink Industry Ireland (FDII).

“Getting further reductions in salt will take longer to achieve and will be more expensive.”

Kelly says the progress made so far has been significant; a 7 per cent reduction across all foods, 10 per cent less salt in breads and a reduction of 7-15 per cent in various processed meat products.

But he warns that further steps will lead to radically different products, which may not find favour with consumers.

The experience of breadmakers with low-salt products, which were shunned by consumers, has left a bitter taste in the mouth of the food industry.

“We’re a good bit off,” admits Karl McDonald, technical executive of the FSAI, which has put back the target for reaching a 6g consumption level from 2010 to 2012.

McDonald says he accepts “some” of the arguments put up by the food industry. “There could be safety and quality issues if we reduce salt levels too much. Also, if you take all the salt out of products, no one will buy them.”

He is also conscious of the effects of the recession on food manufacturers, and doesn’t want to see firms put at a competitive disadvantage just because they have done more to reduce salt than others. “There’s a level playing pitch out there at the moment and we’re anxious to keep that,” he says.

Yet it is hard to gauge from the outside just how much pressure has been put on the food industry to produce results. The FSAI has not set targets for specific products, as its counterpart in the UK has, and many of the undertakings described in its annual update are woolly at best.

Carroll Cuisine, to take one example, undertakes to “reduce salt over the coming year” but provides no specifics, yet the FSAI says its salt-reduction programme as been “exceptional”.

Other entries contain the same list of achievements as were contained in the reviews published in previous years.

The programme is a voluntary one, and meetings take place behind closed doors. The FSAI recently asked if it should switch to the UK method of calculating targets, but decided not to after the responses came back 48 per cent to 44 per cent against a change.

Manufacturers argued that the British categories didn’t suit Irish conditions – for example, our fondness for soda bread – and some weren’t achievable.

Neither industry nor the FSAI is in favour of a compulsory programme, so for now the focus will be on investing new momentum in the existing voluntary effort, and waiting to see what the outcome of the EU’s deliberations will be.

What this means for consumers is that if they are serious about reducing the salt in their diet – and all the medical advice says they should be – they should focus on switching to lower-salt, healthier alternatives to their favourite foods.

Go easy on ham, sausages and smoked fish. Ration your use of instant soups, gravy powder, stock cubes and soy sauces. Eat more fresh food. And put the salt cellar at the back of the press.