Source: Business Day, Tamar Kahn (2011-06-01)
CAPE TOWN — Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi is planning to introduce legislation to lower the salt content of food, he told Parliament yesterday.
This is likely to come as a blow to the food industry, which prefers self-regulation.
While salt has the virtues of preserving food and making it tastier, it takes its toll on health. It drives up blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
“(The) South African diet has been shown to be very high in salt,” Dr Motsoaledi told MPs during his budget vote debate yesterday. “The desired amount of salt for your body is known to be 4g-6g per day, but in our country it is up to 9,8g.”
Most of South Africans’ daily salt intake came from processed food, rather than being added at the table, he said.
Dr Motsoaledi said SA could learn from the UK, which decided in 2006 to reduce the salt content of food by 40% within five years.
“In SA, studies show that reducing salt intake just (in) bread will save close to 6500 lives per annum. In Britain studies show that in the second year of reduction in salt intake by 10%, 6000 deaths were averted and a saving of £1,5bn was achieved,” he said.
There is a growing body of international research supporting the benefits of reducing salt intake. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last year showed getting the US population to eat just 3g of salt less a day would save $10bn-$24bn a year by averting heart attacks and strokes. US men typically eat about 12g of salt a day.
Many poor South Africans have a diet that is very high in salt, as their staple starch is bread, and South African bread is among the saltiest in the world, the University of Cape Town’s Prof Krisela Steyn previously told Business Day.
Products like soup mix and stock, used extensively by poor households to flavour bland staples such as mielie meal, are also very high in salt.
Some local food companies have already started reducing the salt content of their products. Pick n Pay and Woolworths are among those that have reformulated some of their processed foods, and some bakers such as Sasko have also followed the global trend.
Dr Motsoaledi told Parliament that an unhealthy diet was one of the four lifestyle related risk factors for noncommunicable diseases, which posed a growing burden in SA.
The other risk factors were smoking, alcohol abuse and lack of exercise. “If these four risk factors and related unhealthy behaviours were removed, the world would be a much safer place,” he said.
Noncommunicable diseases were placing further strain on African countries already burdened by high rates of infectious diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis (TB), Dr Motsoaledi said.
The Democratic Alliance’s spokesman on health, Mike Waters, said reducing salt intake could only be a good thing, but he was cautious about government intervention to achieve this goal. “Ideally, what one should be doing is educating the public on what is good nutrition, because you don’t want to become a nanny state,” he said.
Dr Motsoaledi said he was optimistic that SA would be able to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV by 2015.
The recent acquisition of GeneXpert machines for diagnosing TB, which were markedly more effective than traditional microscopy techniques, would help SA improve its cure rate, he said.
He told MPs that the case detection rate among relatives of TB patients had soared to 18%, from between 2% and 7%, since health workers had switched from microscopy to GeneXpert. “The simple fact is we have been under-detecting TB,” Dr Motsoaledi said.
He appealed for patience from South Africans eager for the National Health Insurance scheme as more research was required.