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Salt reduction – from awareness to action

As one of the world’s largest food manufacturers, Unilever is playing its part in helping to tackle some of the biggest public health challenges.

The need for widespread behaviour change

A recent Unilever-led survey* showed that while salt reduction was seen to be healthy and important by the majority of participants, they were unaware of recommended daily guideline amounts and over a third were not interested in reducing their salt intake even when it was too high.

On a positive note, a large proportion said they want to learn why salt is bad for their health and how to reduce their intake, indicating an interesting avenue for behaviour change interventions.

Unilever’s approach

Unilever has some of the most ambitious nutritional targets for its product portfolio across the food industry. As there are no global targets, Unilever has developed a set of product group-specific criteria to reduce salt levels in foods to help consumers lower their intake towards an interim goal of 6g per day and ultimately towards the WHO-recommended 5g per day.

As part of its Sustainable Living Plan, Unilever has made a commitment that 75% of its food products will be compliant with the 5g salt per day criteria by 2020. And in terms of implementing salt reduction measures effectively, the company will continue to drive outreach activities to consumers and influencers to encourage behaviour change.

Real change requires a collective effort

Behaviour change for better diets and better lives is extremely complex and is something that Unilever can contribute to, but cannot achieve alone. It will only truly gain momentum when the many influencers – ranging from celebrity chefs to public health authorities – join forces and each play their own distinct role in stimulating healthy diets and lifestyles.

A number of initiatives have been established to help these aims, including Salt Awareness Week and South Africa’s recent Salt Summit.

Salt Awareness Week

The focus of this year’s Salt Awareness Week – an annual event organised by World Action on Salt & Health – was on the importance of clear and consistent food labelling, and the need for people to take personal responsibility in reducing their salt intake.

This initiative is valuable and helping drive progress, but it has its limitations. For instance, awareness is an essential first step towards change but does not, in itself, lead to action. What’s more, the focus on labelling suggests that people are in the habit of checking food labels, while this is not the case in most instances.

Salt Summit in South Africa

In a ground-breaking move in March 2013, South Africa became the first country globally to legislate salt levels, with the rest of the world following its progress closely. On 13 March this year, the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa held a high-level Salt Summit – supported by Unilever – that brought together key opinion leaders and experts to discuss the challenges and explore potential solutions.

Delegates included the Deputy Minister of Health, local and global representatives from academia, and many NGOs, as well as Unilever’s Carla Hilhorst, VP, R&D and Nutrition, and Gerda Feunekes, Nutrition Director, Savoury.

At the Salt Summit, the Deputy Minister of Health announced that money will be made available by the government to drive salt reduction awareness campaigns. In addition, the Salt Watch movement, aimed at driving ‘South African solutions for the South African salt problem’ was launched.

Discussions focused on the different roles multiple stakeholders – including the food industry – have in reducing salt intake. As Carla says, “In line with our USLP commitments we want to be part of the solution and will continue on our salt reduction journey that we started in 2009”.

The Summit’s aim to bridge mandatory regulation with consumer-focused behaviour change approaches – involving media to reach and influence consumers – is an important step forward.

* The survey, conducted in collaboration with key members of the International Union of Nutritional Sciences, canvassed 7,000 consumers from the US, Brazil, China, India, South Africa, Germany, Austria and Hungary

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