WHO studies reveal Kazakhstan has among the highest levels of salt intake globally

WHO/Nathalie Germain Julskov

Traditional food markets and street vendors throughout central Asian countries play a central role in the region’s cuisine, offering a diverse array of foods ranging from fruits and vegetables to meats, yoghurts and ready-to-eat meals. But recent studies conducted in Kazakhstan identify many of these foods as energy-dense products that are rich in saturated fat, trans fats and salt – too much salt.

This is particularly concerning given that Kazakhstan has one of the highest-known levels of salt intake in the world, according to the findings of 3 studies supported by WHO. The studies, carried out in 2016–2017, take a close look at food environment, dietary intake and nutrition. They are the result of collaboration between WHO/Europe, the Kazakh Academy of Nutrition, the National Centre of Public Health Policy and WHO collaborating centres.

One of these studies shows that salt intake in Kazakhstan stands at about 17 grams per day, which is almost 4 times the WHO-recommended limit. The report was launched on 22 February 2019 at an event hosted by the Kazakh Ministry of Health.

All 3 studies underscore that the promotion of healthy diets needs to be prioritized in Kazakhstan for sustainable development. Some policy solutions are readily available within the health sector, but others must be identified through effective collaboration with other sectors, such as agriculture, education, media and culture.

The recently published factsheet “Ensuring better nutrition in Kazakhstan – key to achieving SDGs” reflects findings from all of the studies.

High salt intake has both historical and modern roots

The problem of high salt intake is part of an historical legacy rooted in the region’s traditional nomadic lifestyle, according to Dr Zarina Keruenova, Deputy Director of the National Centre for Public Health Policy, who worked on one of the studies.

In earlier times, people used salt for the preservation of food, especially meats and sausages but also yoghurts such as kurt and airan. The study identifies that this practice of making highly salted traditional foods continues. However, the arrival of processed foods rich in fats (including trans fats), sugar and salt has compounded the problem. These ingredients are strongly linked to noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).

“The population is consuming more and more foods high in salt and unhealthy fats – both traditional but also industrially produced foods,” said Dr Keruenova. “Their prevalence now reflects regional urbanization and the globalization of the processed food supply chain.”

Prioritizing healthy diets to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

When people in Kazakhstan fail to follow dietary health recommendations, notably those related to salt intake, it contributes to rising levels of hypertension and cardiovascular diseases, obesity, type 2 diabetes and cancer. The premature death and disability rate from these conditions impact socioeconomic development and undermine Kazakhstan’s progress towards achieving the SDGs.

Under the umbrella of the SDGs, WHO has called on countries to work towards a 30% reduction in sodium intake and eliminate the use of industrial trans-fatty acids in foods through effective policies.

The political opportunity to tackle NCDs has, in this way, never been greater. The SDGs and the United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition 2016–2025 provide global and national impetus to address malnutrition, including unhealthy diets, through cross-government, comprehensive and integrated approaches.

The political declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly at the 2018 High-level Meeting on NCDs has further renewed focus and restated commitment to achieve health for all by combatting NCDs.