Australian food manufacturers are failing voluntary commitments to reduce salt levels in foods, a new study has found.

The George Institute for Global Health analysed more than 4500 products from 16 Australian food manufacturers to gauge any positive changes between 2013 and 2017.

Institute executive director professor Bruce Neal said 10 of the companies reviewed are members of the International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA), which has committed to improving products’ healthiness through reformulation, including salt reduction.

The average salt intake in Australia is nine grams per day, which is almost double the World Health Organisation’s recommendation (five grams). Too much salt increases blood pressure, one of the biggest contributors to premature death from stroke or heart disease. Worldwide, excess salt intake is estimated to cause about three million deaths a year.

The study found “no clear evidence of reductions in salt overall, or by IFBA member companies”. Some product categories did show improvement, including processed meat, ready meals, and savoury snacks but many were unchanged.

Neal said that researchers found a wide variation in the salt content of similar foods and drinks, which means it is “technically quite possible to manufacture lower salt version”.

“Although many manufacturers have made commitments to improve the salt levels of their products, rather few seem to have acted on these commitments,” he said.

“There are clearly other reasons why manufacturers aren’t reducing salt levels. It suggests to me that when it comes to salt, voluntary pledges are not enough. We need government to step in and drive this, with regulation probably.”

Neal said most of the salt we eat is “hidden” in processed and packaged foods. “It’s very hard for consumers to track what they are buying because salt levels are written in very small lettering on the back of the package – this really does place the onus on the manufacturers to do better.  You would hope that IFBA members, who are some of the largest companies in the world, would be able to do better.’’

“Most people aren’t aware that the amount they are consuming is raising their blood pressure and shortening their lives,” he said.

In May last year The Heart Foundation and VicHealth have released Australia's first salt reformulation guide for food manufacturers (Food & Drink Business, 03/05/2019).

Reformulation Readiness: A best practice guide to salt reduction for Australia food manufacturers supports reduction of salt (sodium) in processed and packaged products. It guides manufacturers through the reformulation process with information on checking nutritional composition, completing competitor benchmarking, establishing salt targets and timeframes, product improvement and testing.

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