Global salt benchmarks could help save many Kiwi lives

The Ministry of Health recommends a maximum salt consumption of 5.8g a day. In New Zealand,the...
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An analysis of 6800 packaged foods on New Zealand supermarket shelves has found an alarming number are exceeding the recommended levels of "a hidden killer" — salt.

Researchers at the University of Otago and the University of Auckland discovered two-thirds of the products had unhealthy levels of sodium (salt).

In 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) established global sodium benchmarks (safe levels of sodium) in 18 food categories, using data from 41 countries.

Now the New Zealand Stroke Foundation is calling for the government to make the WHO sodium benchmarks mandatory, along with the Health Star Ratings (HSR) on all New Zealand food packaging.

University of Auckland public health nutritionist Assoc Prof Helen Eyles said the findings indicated significant reductions in health inequities as well as savings to our health system if New Zealand introduced the benchmarks.

Within 10 years, New Zealanders would gain an estimated 2500 healthy life years, due to harm reduction from heart disease, stroke and stomach cancer. The health system would save about $108 million over that time.

"Our modelling shows that the health benefits would be significant if the government was to limit salt intake by introducing the WHO sodium benchmarks.

"Many everyday foods have hidden salt, such as meat alternatives like falafel and plant-based burgers, as well as processed meat and fish, sweet pies, cakes and pastries, canned and frozen foods."

In the latest WHO Global Sodium Intake Reduction Report, which scored countries on their progress implementing recommended strategies, New Zealand and Australia rated poorly with a 2/4 mark.

Countries including Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay, Saudi Arabia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Spain, and Malaysia led the way with scores of 4/4.

Stroke Foundation advocacy programme leader Anne Kelly said mandatory standards for the food industry to reduce salt content in processed food would help save thousands of New Zealand lives lost or affected by strokes each year.

Many New Zealanders were consuming 70% more than the recommended 5g daily intake of salt every day — often unwittingly.

"With around one-fifth of our population living with high blood pressure, which is the major cause of stroke, reducing our salt intake is an absolute health priority.

"We need to be empowering people to make more informed and healthy food choices."

In the absence of WHO sodium benchmarks in New Zealand, consumers were left with voluntary initiatives which included the Health Star Rating on food packaging and the Heart Foundation food industry programme.

"It’s clear these voluntary industry measures aren’t working.

"They are too weak and the uptake of standards by manufacturers is too slow."

Only 30% of intended products carried the Health Star Rating in 2023, which was "well below" the target of 50%, she said.

"Other countries around the world have demonstrated that salt-reduction strategies, including strong pressure on industry, are achievable.

"Now it’s our turn."