We know too much salt is bad for us – but have we forgotten why it’s also crucial to our health?
Most people consume 9-12g (about 2 teaspoons) of salt per day. That’s more than twice the daily intake recommended by the World Health Organization. Reducing salt in the diet can help reduce blood pressure, risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and heart attack, potentially preventing some 2.5 million deaths per year. WHO member states have agreed to reduce the global population’s intake of salt by a relative 30% by 2025.
Most people know they should decrease their salt intake. Everywhere we look, reduced salt or low-sodium products are being presented as a healthier option.
But what’s less well known or remembered is that salt is a vehicle for a vital public health intervention. 2-3 decades ago, hundreds of millions of adults and children around the world suffered from IQ loss, goitres, and other debilitating forms of iodine deficiency, limiting their ability to learn and their human potential. Today, thanks to the work of a unique global partnership of governments, civil society and the private sector, 88% of the world’s households have access to iodized salt.(1)
Due to changing lifestyles, we no longer just consume iodized table salt at home. Processed foods containing salt take up an increasing share of people’s diets, whether eaten at home, in schools, on the street, in restaurants or on the go. As countries work to reduce population intake, salt iodization levels can easily be increased to compensate for less consumption. But while salt iodization is mandatory in many countries, the focus has traditionally been on table salt, with little attention being paid to its use in processed foods, and that needs to change.
So where do we go from here? Coordination and communication are crucial to the success of both public health initiatives. First, we need make sure that salt reduction efforts take account of the need to increase iodine content in table salt. Second, we need to understand, mandate and monitor the use of iodized salt in processed foods around the world, and to make sure that iodization levels reflect decreased consumption. IGN has produced guidance to help countries conduct these assessments
In 2005, a World Health Assembly resolution expressed concern at the invisible brain damage caused to hundreds of millions of children by iodine deficiency and asked the WHO Director-General to strengthen cooperation with member states and advocacy on salt iodization, and to report on implementation every three years. The resolution, which has led to a successful global public health program, called on WHO to redouble its efforts to eliminate iodine deficiencies through Universal Salt Iodization. IGN notes that despite the public health success, many countries are still deficient and in many, the data is more than 10 years old. This reflects the fact that the perception of the importance of this intervention has declined significantly.
If we communicate with one voice on this issue, people can understand that reducing salt intake is compatible with the good health of their children, their families and communities – as long as that salt is adequately iodized.
If you are interested in this topic, more specifically in the South Asian Region, please join us for a meeting on the sustainability of Universal Salt Iodization in compatibility with salt reduction initiatives in the region. Speakers include IGN Chair Dr. Michael Zimmermann and Dr. Bruce Neal, Executive Director of the George Institute for Global Health, Australia. You can register here
(1) Reference: data.unicef.org/topic/nutrition/iodine