Salt, the hidden killer in ultra-processed foods

In Mexico, 30.2% of the population lives with hypertension, which in turn increases the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases. Frontal warning labeling is an example of public policy that alerts consumers when a product exceeds the amount of sodium.

Salt, the hidden killer in ultra-processed foods
There is a need to continue promoting targeted public policies that contribute to reducing sodium consumption. Photo by Edi Libedinsky / Unsplash

In Mexico, about 30.2% of adults over 20 years of age live with hypertension, with a proportion of 11.5% in women and 19.6% in men. According to official figures, of the total number of patients diagnosed with COVID-19 in 2020, 17.4% had diabetes, 14.5% hypertension, and 18.9% had some cardiovascular disease.

It is important to remember that hypertension increases the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks and stroke, and renal failure. According to Inegi, the leading cause of death in the country is heart disease. However, this could be avoided by simply reducing sodium consumption. World Salt Awareness Week is being commemorated from March 14 to 20, this year's slogan is “Shake the salt habit!”

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that adults consume less than 5 grams of salt (equivalent to 2 grams or 2,000 mg of sodium) per day. A teaspoon of salt weighs approximately 5 grams, the maximum recommended for a whole day. However, in Mexico, this amount is doubled and a large part of this consumption comes from ultra-processed products.

A study carried out by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) indicated that half of the sodium present in ultra-processed products comes from sauces and instant dressings. Other products that contain high amounts of sodium are soups, prepared foods, cookies, industrialized bread, margarine, oils and fat spreads, sweet and salty snacks.

Since Mexico is one of the largest consumers of ultra-processed products in Latin America, as shown by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), it is important to formulate policies to discourage the consumption of these products and promote the consumption of less processed foods, revaluing the region's foods, since this would reduce sodium consumption and could save thousands of lives.

A major advance in public policy in Mexico to reduce sodium consumption was the frontal warning labeling that alerts consumers when a product exceeds the amount of sodium according to the criteria established in Mexican Official Standard 051, which are based on PAHO's Nutrient Profile Model. Those ultra-processed products that contain 350 milligrams (mg) of sodium or more per 100 g or 100 ml have the “excess sodium” warning seal, which serves to alert consumers about the possible risk of consuming these products.

It is important to have public policies that encourage the reduction of sodium consumption. A clear example is the frontal warning label, which on the one hand helps consumers to recognize when a product has excess sodium, and on the other, has encouraged the food industry to reduce the amount of sodium in products. As a result of the implementation of the labeling, several industries declared having reformulated their products by up to 56%, among these reformulations, we have observed a significant reduction of sodium in the products.

Mexico is part of a group of countries in the Latin American region that have committed to implementing a strategy to reduce sodium consumption by 30% by 2025, so it is necessary to continue promoting policies specifically aimed at the food industry to help achieve this goal.