Too much salt can contribute to high blood pressure and lead to an increased risk of heart disease, strokes, and other ailments. South Africa carries an unacceptably high burden of hypertension with up to 30% of South African adults known to be hypertensive. Hypertension is the leading risk factor for strokes and heart attacks in South Africa, responsible for 1 in 2 strokes and 2 in 5 heart attacks. Hypertension is also South Africa’s most common reason for attending primary healthcare and the most common diagnosis in South Africa. High salt consumption is a key driver of hypertension, with strong evidence to indicate that a reduction in salt intake contributes to a reduced risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
Currently, South Africans consume up to 2-3 times their recommended daily salt allowance of 5g, with the sources of this dietary salt intake split between salt from processed foods and discretionary salt. More than half (55%) of the salt South Africans consume comes from packaged foods, which contain hidden salts and 45% of salt consumed is discretionary salt – added during cooking and at the table.
As national mortality from non-communicable diseases continues to increase, salt reduction has become a national health concern. In 2016, South Africa became the first country to legislate maximum salt levels in processed foods. NGOs, government, healthcare groups, and the food industry have since taken steps to work on reducing salt content and building national awareness to help educate South Africans on how to break their salt habit.
In line with the WHO’s global salt allowance of less than 5 g salt per day, we at Unilever have committed to reducing salt levels in our food portfolio to ensure that by 2020, 75% of our food portfolio meets salt levels that enable a salt intake of 5g per day.
Additionally, we have also committed to reducing salt levels in our food products each time we reformulate. We’re ditching salt for salt replacements and choosing instead to enhance flavours with other ingredients such as herbs and spices. Through cutting salt and replacing it with aromas, spices, and herbs that naturally contribute a salty taste and flavour, we hope to make our products even more nutritious, while still maintaining the same great taste. We continually review our approach to reformulation and continue to make enhancements, offering more plant-based ingredients in our products, reducing salt, sugar, and calories, and providing good fats.
As approximately 45% of the salt South Africans eat is added at the table, high discretionary salt intake in South Africans means that a population education and awareness campaign in parallel with legislation is still required. Our first attempt at this can be seen through our Knorrox reformulation campaign, where we not only reformulated and reduced the salt content in Knorrox cubes but also worked to encourage people to make more nutritious choices in a simple and understandable way through clear labelling. Through our Knorrox campaign we were able to educate consumers on alternative methods of adding flavour while still achieving a “rich meaty flavour” with less salt.
By changing things step by step, we hope to gradually tweak South Africa’s palates and help prompt more people to stop reaching for their salt shakers.
He, F. J., Campbell, N. R., and MacGregor, G. A. (2012). Reducing salt intake to prevent hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Revista Panamericana de Salud Pública, 32, pp. 293-300.
Eksteen, G. and Mungal-Singh, V. (2015). Salt intake in South Africa: a current perspective. Journal of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes of South Africa, 20(1), pp. 9-14