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WHO says the world is consuming way too much salt

Too much salt is killing us — and we need to stop looking away from the problem, according to a new report from the World Health Organization.

The world is not on track to achieve the goal of a 30 per cent reduction in sodium intake by 2025, the report found, and if we don’t take drastic steps to reduce our salt intake quickly, it could lead to millions of unnecessary deaths .

“Unhealthy diets are a leading cause of death and disease globally, and excessive sodium intake is one of the main culprits,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said in a press release. “This report shows that most countries have yet to adopt any mandatory sodium reduction policies, leaving their people at risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other health problems. WHO calls on all countries to implement the ‘Best Buys’ for sodium reduction, and on manufacturers to implement the WHO benchmarks for sodium content in food.”

Salt is an essential part of the human diet, but can contribute to a myriad of issues if consumed in excess, including increasing the risk of stroke, heart disease and premature death.

WHO recommends that the average person consumes no more than five grams, or one teaspoon, of salt per day. However, the global average salt intake is estimated to be more than double, around 10.8 grams.

The implementation of policies to reduce sodium intake could save an estimated seven million lives globally by 2030, according to the WHO release.

In 2013, more than 190 countries, including Canada, committed to reducing the population’s sodium intake by 30 per cent by 2025.

The report, published Thursday, investigates the progress that countries have made on this goal, and is calling on global leaders to implement clearer policies to reduce sodium intake.

Only five per cent of WHO member states have mandatory and comprehensive policies for sodium reduction, the report stated: Brazil, Chile, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Spain and Uruguay. This means that only around 26 per cent of the global population lives in countries with mandatory measures towards sodium reduction.

As part of the report, WHO created a Sodium Country Score Card, which rates countries on their progress towards lowering sodium intake.

And when it comes to salt safety, Canada doesn’t accept a passing grade.

Canada is one of 65 countries that received a two out of four on the score card by having “voluntary measures to reduce sodium.”

One point was given to 58 countries for having a national policy commitment to reduce sodium intake.

Countries scored three out of four if they had mandatory measures adopted for sodium reduction, and four out of four if they had multiple mandatory measures and had specific WHO recommendations implemented.

A Health Canada report released in 2020 acknowledged that when the agency performed an evaluation on Canada’s sodium intake reduction in 2018, it found that voluntary sodium reductions were only modest and did not meet targets.

Voluntary efforts in the food processing sector to reduce sodium only resulted in a decrease of eight per cent in the average sodium intake since 2010, the 2018 data found.

About six out of 10 Canadians consume too much sodium, according to Health Canada.

HOW TO REDUCE SALT INTAKE

WHO has outlined four “best buy” recommendations for how to reduce sodium on a wide scale.

One is to reformulate food to contain less salt, and for countries to set targets for the amount of sodium within meals as part of healthy eating recommendations.

Another recommendation is to make it mandatory to have sodium levels posted on the front of food packaging.

WHO also recommends campaigns to communicate the need to reduce sodium intake to the population as a whole to promote behavior change and the establishment of food policies that limit sodium-rich foods in places such as retirement homes, hospitals and schools.

One of the benefits of mandatory policies, as opposed to pushing only voluntary behavior changes, is that it puts food manufacturers on an even playing field and safeguards against commercial interests being put above health safety, WHO says.

“This important report demonstrates that countries must work urgently to implement ambitious, mandatory, government-led sodium reduction policies to meet the global target of reducing salt consumption by 2025,” Dr. Tom Frieden said in the release.

Frieden is president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, a not-for-profit organization working with countries to minimize death from cardiovascular disease.

“There are proven measures that governments can implement and important innovations, such as low sodium salt,” he said. “The world needs action, and now, or many more people will experience disabling or fatal—but preventable—heart attacks and strokes.”