Most people consume twice the five grams of salt per day recommended by the WHO, putting them at greater risk of heart disease and stroke. (Image by Emmy Smith/Unsplash)
People around the world consume twice as much salt as they should, with serious health risks, and reducing salt intake could save seven million lives by 2030, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) report released on Thursday.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, recalled when presenting the report in this Swiss city that “unhealthy diet is one of the leading causes of death and disease globally, and excessive sodium intake is largely to blame”.

In its first report of its kind, “Global report on sodium intake reduction”, the WHO stresses that the global target of reducing sodium intake by 30 % by 2025 is far from being met.

Sodium, although an essential nutrient, increases the risk of heart disease, such as stroke, and premature death when taken in excess.

The main source of sodium is table salt (sodium chloride), but other condiments, such as sodium glutamate, also contain sodium.

The global average salt intake is estimated at 10.8 grams per day, more than double the WHO recommendation of less than five grams (one teaspoon) per day.

The report shows that only five percent of WHO member states are protected by mandatory and comprehensive sodium reduction policies and 73 percent do not fully implement such policies.

Currently only nine countries (Brazil, Chile, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Spain,and Uruguay) have a comprehensive set of recommended policies to reduce sodium intake.

Tedros said: “This report makes it clear that most countries have not yet adopted any mandatory sodium reduction policies, leaving their populations at risk of heart attacks, strokes and other health problems.

The WHO “urges all countries to implement ‘best investments’ for sodium reduction, and manufacturers to apply the organisation’s guideline values for sodium content in foods,” it added.

It is estimated that the introduction of sodium reduction policies, all of which are highly cost-effective, could save the lives of an estimated seven million people by 2030, as it is an important component of measures to achieve one of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets.

In SDG3, Health and well-being, target 3.4 proposes to reduce premature mortality from noncommunicable diseases by one third, through prevention and treatment, and to promote mental health and wellbeing.

Tom Frieden, President of Resolve to Save Lives, an organisation that works with countries to prevent millions of deaths from cardiovascular disease, said: “There are proven measures and important innovations, such as low-sodium salts, that governments can implement.

“Action is needed now, or many more people will have disabling or fatal heart attacks and strokes that could have been prevented,” Frieden insisted.

The comprehensive approach proposed by the WHO calls first for reformulating processed foods to contain less salt, and setting targets for the amount of sodium in foods and servings.

Then, to establish public food purchasing policies to limit foods high in salt or sodium in public institutions such as hospitals, schools, workplaces and nursing homes.

Another proposal is to introduce front-of-package labelling to help consumers select low-sodium products.

Also, media and communication campaigns to encourage behavioural change to reduce salt and sodium consumption.

Finally, countries are encouraged to set targets for sodium content in processed foods, in line with WHO global reference values, and to enforce them.