Despite progress, no European country on track to meet salt reduction goal


Food and health experts from across Europe met in Lisbon, Portugal on 20–22 April 2016 to discuss strategies to reduce the harmful levels of salt in food. In Portugal, high blood pressure is the biggest risk factor for death and disability, and high salt intake is a major contributor to high blood pressure.

Around 50 participants from 14 countries and the European Commission attended the meeting of the European Salt Action Network.

Globally, countries have committed to cut salt intake by 30% between 2010 and 2025, but more action is needed to meet that target. Dr João Breda, Programme Manager, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at WHO/Europe, described how, on the basis of the latest data, no European country is on track to meet the global target.

Global and European strategies from WHO set out actions that countries can take to reduce salt, and a wealth of knowledge now exists about what works. Dr Jacqui Webster, Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre on Population Salt Reduction at the George Institute for Global Health (Sydney, Australia), reported on global salt statistics.

Globally, 75 countries have a national salt reduction strategy and of those:

  • more than two-thirds (71%) have a consumer education initiative
  • 61% have some form of industry engagement to reformulate food
  • only 45% have established voluntary or mandatory targets for the salt content of food.

Other initiatives include introducing labelling on the front of food packages, developing nutrition guidelines for food served in public institutions and, albeit in very few cases, using taxation as a tool to decrease salt intake. Although governments still prefer voluntary initiatives to regulation, there are signs that countries are increasingly prepared to consider a regulatory approach.

5 European countries have a set of legal standards for salt content, for example, and Finland requires warning labels on high salt foods. Crucially, evidence now shows that salt reduction can work. In the WHO European Region, 9 countries report that they have decreased average salt intake, and policy-makers can draw on the experience of these countries.

Better monitoring and evaluation needed

Better monitoring and evaluation is needed to understand exactly why and how particular initiatives work. An important element of monitoring and evaluation is information about salt levels in food and how these change.

Ms Susanne Westenbrink, Senior Research Dietitian at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) in the Netherlands, described the Dutch infrastructure that has been established to manage data on salt in food. The Netherlands Food Information Resource comprises detailed nutrient information on more than 2500 generic food items and limited nutrient information on more than 10 000 branded foods.

This data are essential for research including national food consumption surveys. They have recently been used to create a food reformulation monitor to track the food industry's progress towards their commitments to reduce salt levels in their foods by 2020, according to a national agreement signed with the Dutch Minister of Health.