Parents keen to reduce salt but find product labels confusing

Many Australian parents are trying to reduce their salt intake but come unstuck when faced with food labels that instead refer to ‘sodium’, according to a new Deakin University study unpacking parents’ salt knowledge, attitudes and behaviours.

Lead author Ajam Khokhar, from Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), said Australian children are consuming well above the recommended limit for salt, but parents looking to cut down were often forced to make complex conversions at the supermarket shelf.

“Young children should be consuming less than a teaspoon of salt a day. Any more can increase the risk of high blood pressure and related health issues like a stroke or heart attack later in life,” Ms Khokhar said.

“But it’s difficult for parents, because while the public message is focused on reducing salt, when they’re at the supermarket and pick up a product off the shelf its nutrition panel refers to ‘sodium’, and that may be hard for them to interpret.

“They either don’t know what sodium is, or how that translates to salt content, so we need some more education on that.

“There is a formula you can use, but realistically that’s just not possible for every food item when you’re out shopping with kids.

“What we need is a consistent, front of pack labelling system, identifying products low in salt, and giving clear information about salt content across the board, not just on selected products.

“We need to help parents select lower-salt food options, in a way that means they can pick these off the shelf easily.”

The Deakin study – published today in the journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health – surveyed more than 2000 Australians adults to look at what parents with children understood about appropriate salt intake, and how that knowledge and behaviour compared to other adults.

Ms Khokhar said this information was important in helping to inform public health campaigns to reduce salt consumption, and make sure these messages hit the mark.

“Our previous research has shown that most parents are concerned about their child’s salt intake, and that they strongly support more action to reduce the amount of salt in foods targeted at children,” she said.

“And half the parents we surveyed in this new study said they were actively trying to reduce their intake. But there was some confusion about how to cut down on salt, and it seems parents might not be aware of the best products to choose.

“So this paper really helps us look at whether there are different messages we need to be putting out there around salt to specifically target parents of children.”

The data showed that more than half of the parents surveyed found it difficult to interpret sodium information displayed on packaged food, and parents were more likely to add salt to food at the table than other adults.

It’s recommended that children aged four to eight consume no more than 3.5 grams of salt per day,  and for those aged nine to 13 the recommended limit is 5 grams. This equates to about 1400 mg and 2000 mg of sodium per day, respectively.

“While most of the sodium in our food comes from salt, sodium is also found naturally in various foods that we eat, even when they don’t have added salt,” Ms Khokhar said.

“When the nutrients in foods are analysed the sodium content from all sources is determined, and that’s why the current Australian standard is to list sodium content on food products, as opposed to just salt.”

Ms Khokhar said the salt content of many processed foods was typically very high, especially in pantry staples like bread and cheese.

“People are just not aware that bread is one of the main culprits when it comes to added salt, and that’s the same with other ‘hidden’ sources of salt such as ready-made sauces,” she said.

“We think that something has to taste salty to be salty. But to extend the shelf life of processed food there’s often a lot of salt added.

“In Australia, approximately 80 per cent of our salt intake is from processed food. Therefore, simple tips at the supermarket can help to cut down on your salt intake.

“Parents can also think about ways to reduce salt in home cooking, such as using herbs and spices to add flavour instead of salt, and swapping processed foods for fresh food.”

Heart Foundation CEO Victoria Kellie-Ann Jolly said while reducing salt may be seen by consumers as less important than reducing fat and sugar, nearly 50 per cent of heart disease deaths in Australia were attributable to high blood pressure.

“Consumer education remains vital, as the biggest contributor of salt in our diets is through processed and packaged foods,” Ms Jolly said.

“Through our Unpack the Salt campaign, we have also sought to engage with food manufacturers and government to adopt ‘best buy’ salt reformulation strategies aimed at improving health outcomes at a population-wide level.

“We know the UK has one of the lowest salt intakes of any developed country and this has been achieved through setting robust salt reformulation targets, backed by strong government leadership.

“In Australia, work has already been done to gain consensus around draft salt targets through the Healthy Food Partnership. We urge the Federal Government and the Healthy Food Partnership to continue this vital work and move to implement voluntary salt targets now for Australia’s health.”

What to look out for at the supermarket:

  • Bread – maximum of 380mg of sodium per 100g
  • Breakfast cereal – maximum of 360mg of sodium per 100g
  • Cheddar-style cheeses – maximum of 710mg of sodium per 100g
  • Processed cheeses – maximum of 1270mg of sodium per 100g
  • Asian-style sauces – maximum of 680mg of sodium per 100g
  • Ready-made paste sauces – maximum of 360mg of sodium per 100g

Click here for more information about Deakin IPAN’s research into physical activity and nutrition or follow us on Twitter @DeakinIPAN

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