GENEVA - Implementing sodium reduction policies could save an estimated seven million lives globally by 2030, WHO said in a new report launched on Thursday.

“Unhealthy diets are a leading cause of death and disease globally, and excessive sodium intake is one of the main culprits,” the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared.

A first-of-its-kind WHO global report on sodium intake reduction shows that the world is off-track to achieve its global target of reducing sodium intake by 30 per cent, by 2025.

“This report shows that most countries are yet to adopt any mandatory sodium reduction policies, leaving their people at risk of heart attack, stroke, and other health problems,” he said.

To reverse this trend, the global healthy agency is issuing a call to all countries to implement plans for sodium reduction, and to manufacturers to set ambitious sodium reduction targets in their products.

Top risk factor

A source of flavour, as well as armed conflict over millennia, sodium-rich salt is now being over-consumed across the world to the detriment of health overall.

Sodium, an essential nutrient, increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and premature death when eaten in excess.

The global average intake is estimated to be 10.8 grams per day, more than double the WHO recommendation of less than 5 grams, or one teaspoon, daily. The main source of sodium is table salt (sodium chloride), but it is also contained in other condiments such as sodium glutamate.

Eating too much makes it the top risk factor for diet and nutrition-related deaths. More evidence is emerging documenting links between high sodium intake and increased risk of other health conditions such as gastric cancer, obesity, osteoporosis, and kidney disease.

Dearth of policy solutions

Only nine countries – Brazil, Chile, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Uruguay – currently have a comprehensive package of recommended policies to reduce sodium intake. The WHO report shows that only 5 per cent of the world’s population is protected by mandatory sodium reduction policies and 73 per cent of WHO’s 194 Member States lack the ability to fully implement such policies.

Saving lives through introducing cost-effective sodium reduction policies is an important component of action to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development target of reducing deaths from noncommunicable diseases, WHO said.

‘Best buy’ approaches

A comprehensive approach to sodium reduction includes adopting mandatory policies and WHO’s four “best buy” interventions related with sodium, which greatly contribute to preventing noncommunicable diseases.

These include reformulating foods to contain less salt and establishing public food procurement policies to limit salt or sodium rich foods in such institutions such as hospitals, schools, and workplaces.

In addition, WHO recommends front-of-package labelling that helps consumers select products lower in sodium and public and media awareness-raising campaigns.

Sodium ‘score card’

However, mandatory sodium reduction policies are more effective, as they achieve broader coverage and safeguard against short-term commercial interests, while providing a level playing field for food manufacturers, WHO said. As part of the report, WHO developed a sodium country score card for Member States based on the type and number of sodium reduction policies they have in place.

WHO efforts also include partnering with Resolve to Save Lives, a not-for-profit organization working with countries to prevent 100 million deaths from cardiovascular disease over 30 years.

‘World needs action’

Former top US health official, Tom Frieden, President and CEO of the group, said countries must work urgently to implement ambitious, mandatory, government-led policies to meet the global target of reducing salt consumption by 2025.

Such innovations as low sodium salt alongside other proven measures are among a set of tools governments can use, he said. To help raise awareness, Resolve to Save Lives recently published a global nutrition database for packaged foods, which includes data for 25 countries.

“The world needs action, and now, or many more people will experience disabling or deadly, but preventable, heart attacks and strokes,” he said.