15 May, 2015 Last updated: 19 May, 2015

By Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

Opinion piece first published on the Herald Sun website on 15 May 2015.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter

Open any newspaper or magazine in Australia today and you'll almost certainly find an article denouncing sugar in all its forms.

While it's important to raise awareness about the health hazards of added sugar, and in particular sugar-sweetened beverages, there is another white additive we need to pay more attention to.

Salt has seasoned history since the beginning of time. It was once traded ounce for ounce for gold; Roman soldiers were part-paid in salt; and during India’s independence movement in 1930, in protest against the high British tax on salt, Mahatma Gandhi led a mass pilgrimage of his followers to the Arabian Sea coast to make their own salt.

A new chapter in the history of salt is currently being written but it isn't good news for Victorians.

While down through the ages salt played an important role in the preservation of food, that is often not the case today due to modern food processing and technologies. Today, salt is widely added to foods for flavour alone.

Every year in Victoria, we consume more than 15,000 tonnes of salt – almost twice the upper limit that’s recommended by the World Health Organisation (which is less than one teaspoon or 5g a day).

In particular, children, who generally need less salt than adults, are eating far too much salt, and that can lead to a lifetime of health risks.

Data shows that children as young as four and five years old are eating above the upper limit recommended for adults and teenage boys are among the highest consumers of salt.

Salt increases the risk of high blood pressure, which affects one in four Victorians and accounts for about half of all strokes, heart disease and chronic kidney disease deaths. High salt intake is also linked to heart failure, stomach cancer and osteoporosis.

Most worryingly, almost one in 20 deaths in Victoria is attributable to a high intake of salt – that’s six times the annual road toll in the state.

We can easily get the necessary amount of salt from naturally occurring salt in fresh foods such as dairy products, eggs, shellfish and meat. But most of our intake comes from salt that is added to processed foods, often for taste purposes.

With about 75 per cent of salt in the Australian diet coming from processed foods like pizza, takeaway foods, breads and cereal-based products, processed meats and ready-made sauces, it’s easy to see how Victorians are consuming more than they realise – and much more than we need.

Everyone knows that a high salt diet is bad for their health, but what are we doing about it?

Australia has committed to a 30 per cent reduction in salt intake by 2025 as part of the World Health Organisation (WHO) global targets to prevent and control non-communicable diseases such as heart attacks and strokes.

If we’re serious about achieving the 30 per cent reduction target, it’s time for us all to step up.

That’s why VicHealth has joined forces with a range of organisations to launch a plan of action to reduce salt.

It’s not just the right thing to do for health; it’s a smart thing for our economy. By reducing the amount of salt Victorians consume by 3 per cent, we could save 800 lives each year and $50 million in healthcare costs.

The State of Salt: The Case for Salt Reduction in Victoria, published this week, is focused on saving lives by working in partnership with governments, the food industry, non-government organisations and the Victorian public to increase awareness and strengthen policies to support a healthier food supply that includes lower salt levels in Victoria.

The food industry has a critical role to play in tackling Victorians’ high salt diets. Some food manufacturers are already committed to reducing salt in their products; however, there needs to be broad commitment across the sector.

Consumer support is paramount to driving the demand for lower salt products. There also needs to be more efforts made to encourage the adoption of low-salt practices by restaurants and eateries, such as lowering salt in ready-to-eat meals and reducing salt in food preparation.

Simple measures like taking salt shakers off the tables in cafes and restaurants would be a great first step. Tastebuds will adjust; it just takes time.

Every spoonful of salt that can be removed from our diets is a step closer to creating a healthier generation. Salt reduction strategies are up to 200 times more cost-effective than treatment with high blood pressure medication and these programs have worked elsewhere, most notably in the United Kingdom.

Victoria is leading the way in Australia to meet the WHO's global target, but more and faster action is needed if lives are to be saved.

VicHealth's plan of action provides an important avenue for government, food industry, public health bodies and all Victorians to work together and be part of the solution.

- Jerril