By Les Watkins
Consumers barely seemed to notice when New Zealand’s two major bread producers removed 150 tonnes of salt from the nation’s food in just one year. And the manufacturers’ softly-softly approach of gradually reducing their use of salt over three to four years – with support from the National Heart Foundation – unobtrusively cut more than ten percent of potentially harmful sodium from many products.
Now the Foundation and other healthconscious organisations such as the Stroke Foundation of NZ are pressing for similar action from fast-food chains.
This follows an international study showing that this country’s fast foods such as burgers contain on average eight percent more sodium than comparable ones in the UK – and a startling 18 percent more than those in France.
“This is a high risk to our population’s health and gives an urgent message about the need for change,” says Associate Professor Cliona NiMhurchu of The University of Auckland’s Clinical Trials Research Unit. She was one of ten specialists from six countries who conducted the study.
“If the UK and France have similar products with much lower salt levels, this shows that New Zealand could be – and should be – heading in the same direction.”
That message is also given vigorously by Stroke Foundation CEO Mark Vivian.
“There is really no excuse for such differences in sodium content in the same fast food products in different countries,” he says.
“The excess salt affects people’s health the same wherever they are and customers in New Zealand can adjust to lower salt levels the same as they have done in the UK.
“Unfortunately, people on low incomes rely more heavily on fast foods. Maori and Pacific people are disproportionately represented in low-income brackets and also have a higher incidence of stroke.
“The fast food industry must join the party now. Failure to reduce sodium levels is indefensible.”
The ‘softly-softly’ approach adopted with bread is favoured by the Heart Foundation.
The organisation’s food industry setting manager Dave Monro says: “Because our taste preference for salt is something we learn as kids the gradual reduction of salt allows our taste buds to adapt to small changes. They wouldn’t be significant.”
Although the reduction of salt by bakers has been applauded, the value of mandatory inclusion of iodised salt in most breads is also recognised – as NZ FOODtechnology reported in March – because it is estimated to have slashed the percentage of school-aged children with inadequate iodine intake from 38 to four.
The Canadian Medical Association Journal has published the results of the research project which involved Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, the UK and the USA.
It considered fast food from Burger King (Hungry Jack’s in Australia), Domino’s, KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Subway.
The overall results for New Zealand’s fast foods were similar to those for Australia with the sodium content being an average of 1.3 grams per 100 grams.
This compared unfavourably with the 1.2 in the UK and 1.1 in France. The figures for North America were even higher than those for NZ – 1.4 for Canada and 1.5 for the USA.
Individual products are itemised in the study. For example, a McDonald’s Big Mac has 30 percent more sodium per 100 grams in NZ than in either France or the UK. And anyone eating two of KFC’s Zinger burgers in NZ would be exceeding the recommended daily salt intake.
“In the UK there is a long-standing programme where agreements between government and industry on salt targets have driven down the salt levels in processed food,” says Professor NiMhurchu.
“The study demonstrates there is still clear room for improvement in the UK and even more so in New Zealand. It also refutes the standard industry protest since it shows there is no technical reason why salt content can’t be reduced.”
A diet high in sodium leads to higher blood pressure and greater risk of heart disease and stroke. Pizza and burgers are cited as a leading source of excess sodium.
New Zealanders have an average salt intake of nine grams a day compared with the recommended daily maximum of 5-6 grams. A third of this country’s food is bought from restaurants and fast-food outlets.
However, our food producers have been commended by NZ Food and Grocery Council CEO Katherine Rich for their ‘important work’ to reduce salt in food.
“Although many companies started reducing salt in foods a decade ago, this work continues to gain momentum,” she said during World Salt Awareness Week in March.
“Great progress has been made, for example, by the bread and breakfast cereal industry while work is beginning on processed meats.
“Cereals have had to be reformulated slowly and over a long period of time but in one year alone a total of more than 7.5 tonnes were removed from many popular brands.
“And as the companies are continually reformulating, they are achieving reductions of between five and 25 percent at one time.”
She considers that calls to regulate salt in foods are “‘simplistic and unrealistic”.
“No country in the world has regulated the reduction of salt in foods,” she said.
“Lowering salt content can be a technological challenge and companies spend a lot of time and money investigating ways of doing it.
“Salt is an integral part of the manufacturing process and is involved in the end taste, texture and flavour of food.”
Companies she singled out for their work in reducing salt included Goodman Fielder and George Weston Foods with bread, Kellogg’s, Hubbards and Sanitarium with breakfast cereals and Bluebird with many of their snack ranges.
Her organisation was also impressed by steps taken by Mars, Heinz, Wattie’s Nestle, Arnotts and Unilever.