World Health Organization Forum Endorses Salt Reduction to Prevent Heart Disease and Stroke
April 9, 2007
WASHINGTON—A committee convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) has published a report endorsing population-wide strategies to reduce salt consumption as a cost-effective means of lowering blood pressure; thus preventing heart disease, stroke, and other serious health problems. The report urges governments around the world to reduce average sodium consumption to 2,000 milligrams per day, about half of what Americans consume now.
The report stated that “if the agreed goals are not met in a timely way, regulatory approaches should be initiated and enforced. This point may have already been reached in countries where for years voluntary approaches have proved ineffective.”
“There is a virtual consensus among physicians and scientists around the world that excessive sodium is one of the greatest health threats in foods,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Jacobson participated in the WHO forum, but was not on the report-writing committee. “Unfortunately, there’s much less enthusiasm for salt reduction where it is needed the most—among food industry executives and government public health officials, in the United States and many other nations.”
Since 1978, CSPI has been urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take steps to reduce salt in processed and restaurant foods, starting by changing the regulatory status of salt from that of a “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, ingredient, to that of a food additive. Several regulatory petitions, two lawsuits, and nearly thirty years later, the FDA has done virtually nothing to encourage the food industry to reduce salt levels or to offer more low-sodium products. Yet experts at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute have estimated that halving the salt content of processed and restaurant foods would save about 150,000 lives in the U.S. each year. In 2002, the WHO estimated that globally 62 percent of strokes and 49 percent of heart attacks were attributable to elevated blood pressure.
The one bright spot is the United Kingdom, where the Food Standards Agency has mounted a vigorous campaign to urge consumers to choose lower-sodium foods and to pressure the food industry to lower sodium levels in their products. Last month, the agency reported that Britons are consuming an average of five percent less salt than they were in 2001.
The WHO report springs from an October 2006 meeting in Paris convened as part of the implementation of the WHO’s Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health. Meeting participants included national health officials, academic specialists in high blood pressure and heart disease, and representatives from industry and non-governmental organizations. The report also recommended better labeling of sodium content on processed foods, more consumer education, and exploring other ways of providing iodine in the diet besides fortifying table salt.