South Africans’ soups, snacks and cereals are set to become less salty, if industry accepts the government’s proposals to reduce the amount of sodium in processed food, detailed in regulations published last week.
The development is unlikely to surprise the industry, which has known for several years that the government is intent on getting South Africans to consume less salt to improve their health.
But the precise details of the regulations are likely to elicit some debate, as they set a maximum sodium threshold for a variety of food products, ranging from bread and butter to potato crisps and gravy powder.
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Sodium is the culprit in salt, and is also found in some preservatives and flavour enhancers.
The draft regulations to the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, published in the government gazette last Wednesday, apply to local and imported food products.
Food manufacturers have until June 2016 to comply with the first set of sodium targets, and another two years to meet the next. Different thresholds have been set for various food groups, and interested parties have three months to submit their comments.
The Department of Health was targeting salt, as it regarded it as one of the biggest contributors to illnesses such as hypertension, said Prof Melvyn Freeman, head of noncommunicable diseases.
About 60% of the salt consumed by South Africans comes from processed food, leaving people with only moderate scope to reduce their daily sodium consumption themselves, he said.
The government wanted South Africans to meet the World Health Organisation target of eating just 5g of salt a day, which would mean halving what they currently consumed, he said.
Unlike the UK, which introduced a voluntary sodium reduction plan in 2003, South Africa’s government has opted to regulate.
Prof Freeman said the big food producers canvassed by the department supported this approach, as they believed it would level the playing field between competitors.
They were concerned that, given the choice, smaller players might opt to keep salt levels high and woo customers with their saltier products, he said.
It is a fear that has some foundation in experience. Unilever has said consumers reject its low-salt stock cubes, believing they will be less tasty.
Other big food producers are already reducing the salt content of some products, and have said they have been doing so gradually so as not to lose customers. Salt not only enhances flavour, it is also integral to some food processes, their texture and keeping qualities.
Bread producers have said that dropping the salt content too much would pose a challenge, as they would have to develop new processes and might need to change ingredients to retain the texture and keeping qualities of successful products.
Prof Freeman said the UK-based World Action On Salt and Health had offered experts to South Africa to help food producers adapt their goods.
Pick n Pay’s GM for corporate brands, Cindy Jenks, said the company would be compliant on the salt content of its products by the dates stipulated in the gazette.
"We agree that high blood pressure contributes to the considerable burden of cardiovascular disease in South Africa and for this reason we are encouraged to implement strategies such as salt reduction to lower blood pressure," she said.
Woolworths declined to comment on the specifics of the proposed regulations yesterday, but said it had gradually reduced the salt content of some of its product recipes for some time, due to the health concerns associated with the use of excessive salt.
Prof Freeman said the department had consulted scientists at the Medical Research Council and the University of North West to determine which categories of food to target.
Some high-sodium products, such as biltong and soy sauce, were excluded from the draft regulations, as they were not widely consumed in large amounts, he said.
"I’m hoping the industry will be pleasantly pleased by the time frames, as we previously said we would use 2014 and 2016," Prof Freeman said.
In addition to the proposed salt laws, the department was planning an education campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of eating too much salt.