November 5, 2010

Cutting Salt Proves Most Effective

(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- Australian researchers assessed the public health benefits and cost effectiveness of different strategies for reducing dietary salt content - a factor known to have a key role in the increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Imposing madatory limits on the salt content of processed foods could be 20 times more effective than voluntary curbs by industry, according to this study.

The researchers looked at the current Australian 'Tick' program. The program allows food manufacturers to buy an endorsed logo for use on product packaging to gain higher sales in exchange for voluntarily reducing the salt content of these products. They also looked at the impact of mandatory reductions in salt content. Professional advice was given to cut dietary salt for people at increased and high risk of cardiovascular disease.

They then assessed the different strategies in terms of their impact on years of good health over a lifetime, and the associate savings in long-term healthcare spend. They then compared the results with what would happen if none of these strategies were in place.

The researchers accounted for the salt content of bread, margarine and cereals, how many tons of the product was sold, average consumption per head of these products, the cost of drafting and enforcing legislation, and  systematic reviews of the evidence for the impact of dietary advice from healthcare professionals.

The results showed that 610,000 years of healthy life could be gained if everyone reduced their salt intake to recommended limits (maximum of 6 g a day). However, providing dietary advice to reduce salt intake is not cost effective, even if directed towards those with the highest blood pressure readings and most at risk of cardiovascular disease. It would only cut ill health from cardiovascular disease by less than 0.5%.

Voluntary industry restrictions on the salt content of processed foods under the current program are cost effective, and would cut ill health from cardiovascular disease by almost 1%, which is substantial at population level.

Health benefits across the population could be 20 times greater if the government imposed mandatory limits, the figures showed, accounting for a reduction of 18% in ill health from cardiovascular disease. Salt is a cheap ingredient for food manufacturers and is not essential at such high levels.

"Food manufacturers have a responsibility to make money for their shareholders, but they also have a responsibility to society. If corporate responsibility fails, maybe there is an ethical justification for government to step in and legislate," the Australian researchers were quoted as saying.

SOURCE: Heart, published online November 1, 2010