24 Mar, 2016 Last updated: 29 Mar, 2016

Opinion piece by VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter
Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

What’s something quick and easy you can do for the benefit of science and the good health of Victorians before your supermarket shop?

Fill in a survey and provide a urine sample of course!

VicHealth and Deakin University’s Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research (C-PAN) recently teamed up to survey more than 2000 Victorian adults about their knowledge, behaviours and attitudes towards salt.

As part of the research, which is being presented by C-PAN’s Dr Carley Grimes to a group of MPs in Parliament today, a portion of participants surveyed at shopping centres around Geelong and Melbourne also provided research staff with a urine sample on the spot.

It sounds a little humorous but the results it provided about salt intake were invaluable and the implications extremely serious.

Analysis of the 245 urine samples we collected suggest Victorian adults are still eating almost twice the daily recommended amount of salt (5g) with men consuming an estimated 9.6g and women 7.9g per day.

This is despite most participants believing their own individual intake is below the recommendations.

That there is a misconception between the amount of salt people think they are consuming and the amount of salt they actually are eating is worrying, particularly given that salt kills six times more Victorians than the annual road toll.

Salt increases the risk of high blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular disease including heart attack, stroke and blood vessel disease.

Previous C-PAN research shows that 70 per cent of Victorian children are also eating more salt than what is recommended for good health. According to the researchers, every additional gram of salt children ate above the recommended 4-5g per day, was associated with a 23 per cent greater likelihood of being overweight or obese. This is of serious concern.

About 75 per cent of the salt in the Australian diet comes from processed foods, salt is commonly found in pizza, processed meats, takeaway foods and salty snacks, as well as everyday foods like breads, cereals and pasta sauces. Salt is also found naturally in food such as dairy products, eggs, shellfish and meat. You can easily meet your body’s requirement for salt by eating fresh foods without having to add it to meals, or eating foods where salt has been added.  

Salt is quite literally, a hidden killer.

Consumers wanting to reduce their salt intake can cut back on processed foods and eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, which are lower in salt.

Using herbs, garlic, and pepper instead of adding salt during cooking can also help, while The George Institute’s FoodSwitch app, available in the app store, can be a great tool to helping find lower salt foods in the supermarket.

But people also want food industry regulation.

Interestingly, C-PAN researchers found while surveying people as part of the Victorian Consumer Survey of Knowledge, Attitudes and Behaviours Related to Salt Intake, that 62 per cent of participants agreed there should be laws to limit the amount of salt added to manufactured foods.

A further 81 per cent believed that more action needs to be taken to reduce the amount of salt in foods targeted at children.

At VicHealth, we couldn’t agree more.

Victoria is leading the way nationally on salt reduction and VicHealth is proud to be part of the Salt Reduction Strategic Partnership with a range of other organisations including the George Institute, Heart Foundation, Deakin University’s Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research and National Stroke Foundation, Kidney Health Australia and Department of Health and Human Services.

The partnership aims to strengthen health policies and partnerships, develop new ways to work with the food manufacturing industry to reduce the amount of salt in processed food, increase access to fresh fruit and vegetables that are naturally lower in salt, and undertake crucial research to reduce salt intake in Victoria.

We want to work with the food industry to find solutions to lowering salt in foods, while also making salt labelling easier to understand and more user friendly.

Additionally, we want to work with the food industry, health groups, governments, non-government organisations and the broader public to increase awareness and strengthen healthy policies. 

Publicly funded institutions like hospitals can be seen as champions of change in this space, by offering healthy and low salt menu items.

Salt reduction is one of the most cost-effective and equitable ways to improve the health of all Australians.

Australia has committed to a 30 per cent reduction in salt intake by 2025 as part of the World Health Organization’s global targets to reduce average salt intake. 

Achieving this target will require genuine collaboration between government, the food industry, the community and health groups.

Together we must shake up our approach to salt so we can save the hundreds of lives that are lost to it unnecessarily each year.

Jerril Rechter is CEO of VicHealth