Huge variation in salt content of processed food

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Many processed foods contain too much salt, and sauces, spreads, and processed meats are the top offenders, new research shows.

Piles of salt in a file photo. REUTERS/David Mercado

People who consume lots of salt are more likely to see their blood pressure rise as they get older, with a corresponding increase in their heart disease risk.

Public health officials are increasingly looking to the food industry for help in cutting people’s salt intake; the United Kingdom and France, for example, have been able to achieve significant reductions in salt consumption through industry collaborations, while New York City has just launched a campaign to cut US salt intake by 25 percent over the next five years.

Similar efforts are now underway in Australia, and some companies have begun to reduce the salt content of some of their products, according to Dr. Jacqueline L. Webster and colleagues from the George Institute for International Health in Sydney, Australia.

To help guide such efforts, the researchers gathered data on the sodium content of 7,221 products in 10 food groups, 33 categories, and 90 subcategories.

According to a report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, foods were considered to be high in sodium if they contained more than 500 milligrams of sodium for every 100 grams, while foods with sodium contents below 120 milligrams of sodium for every 100 grams were classified as low sodium.

The researchers found dramatic variation in salt content within certain food categories. For example, the saltiest type of hard cheese had six times more sodium than the least salty type, while there was a 14-fold difference in salt content within the sliced meat category and a 100-fold difference within the frozen potato product category.

Sauces and spreads, at 1,283 mg per 100 g, and processed meats, at 846 mg per 100 g, were the categories with the highest average sodium content.

Sodium content was lowest for cereals (206 mg per 100 g) and fruits and vegetables (211 mg per 100 g). Nearly two-thirds of the 33 food categories had average sodium concentrations that were higher than the maximum standards set by the UK Food Standards Agency, while breads, processed meats, sauces and canned vegetables included many subcategories above these targets.

Now that this information has been collected, Webster and her team write, “the establishment of salt targets for all relevant products is the next step, and leading industry players within Australia have indicated a willingness to embark on this process.”

“A national salt-reduction program,” they say, “has enormous potential to avert chronic disease through blood pressure lowering at a fraction of the cost of drug therapies for the management of hypertension (high blood pressure) and should be a national priority.”

SOURCE: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, online December 2, 2010.