Unilever: consumers don’t easily accept less salt

Most South Africans do not believe tasty food can be made with less salt, and few realise cutting their intake may fend off a heart attack or stroke, according to new research by food giant Unilever. Getting to grips with consumer attitudes to salt is vital for food producers, in light of government plans to introduce regulations restricting the salt content of processed food.

South Africans are eating twice as much salt as they should. Even more alarming, a fifth of South Africans are so entrenched in the salt habit, that they add salt to their food without tasting it first. Men are the worst offenders, says Unilever.

Contending that excessive salt intake is adding to the country’s health burden, with lifestyle diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and coronary heart disease on a sharp increase, national health minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi has promised to introduce legislation that will control the amount of salt allowed in food products manufactured and sold in South Africa.

During a briefing to Parliament recently Motsoaledi said that an acceptable daily average per adult was between four and six grams,  but “from our investigation, the average South African consumes an average of 9.8 grams a day, which is far too much for a healthy lifestyle,” he said.

Processed foods, said Motsoaledi, were the main source of salt intake rather than what consumers added at the table.

Durban-based Unilever recently conducted a national survey to ascertain the level of understanding about the dangers of a diet containing too much salt.

Unilever’s focus on salt reduction is in line with Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan launched in 2010, where the FMCG has committed globally to help more than one billion people take action to improve their health and well-being. 

In South Africa Unilever reports it iis making good progress in reducing salt levels in its products and the goal is to reduce the level further to help consumers meet the recommended level of six grams  of salt per day.

However, Unilever’s nutrition and health manager, Nazeeia Sayed, has also commented that consumer acceptance of less salty food products remains a challenge.

“Once they hear ‘less salt’ they think ‘less taste’,” she is quoted as saying in a Business Day report, describing how consumers rejected a 25% lower salt content stock cube five years ago.

“Although internal testing said it tasted fine, it didn’t sell well.”

Sayed says it is clear from the research, which involved nearly 1 000 online interviews and two focus groups, that the majority of people had no idea how much salt was in their food, or how much they should be consuming on a daily basis.

It was apparent, too, that the salt issue was “not top of mind” for the majority of consumers who took part in the survey.

“However, some people, for instance those with high blood pressure, were particularly interested in learning more about salt reduction and how a lower intake of salt could potentially help them maintain a healthy blood pressure.” Most consumers, she notes, only considered the health effects of the salt in their diet after being diagnosed with a disorder such as high blood pressure.

The survey found that most sodium comes from purchased foods accounting for 77 percent of intake. This included seasonings, bread, processed meat and breakfast cereals.

The people who consumed the most salt were between the ages of 18 and 34, mostly single and studying. People suffering from high blood pressure were also among the high salt users. The survey found a fifth of respondents added salt at the table before tasting their food.

“A lot of people know a high fat intake is linked to high cholesterol. But it’s not the same with salt. Many people don’t know that there is a huge amount of salt in processed food; they think it only comes from the salt shaker.”

Consomers surveyed said that they would be willing to reduce their salt intake, but that there should be greater awareness made of the alternatives, like herbs and spices, how to cook low salt meals as well as low salt substitutes.

“Consumers also wanted better salt signage on food labels,” says Sayed.

Among those who participated in the survey and those who will be targeted for support of the national salt reduction programme are the food industry, local food producers, nutrition and health scientists, consumer groups, health care professionals and local authorities.

According to the UK Food Standards Agency, high visibility campaigns about salt have increased consumer awareness. However, in the US only 42% of Americans are concerned with their sodium intake while four in 10 Americans continue to believe that low sodium products do not taste as good.

Unilever SA recently hosted a Salt Reduction Workshop at the North Coast estate of Zimbali, with the aim of gaining insights into the consumer perspective on salt, salt usage and barriers for reducing salt intake.

“We also wanted to brainstorm and create ideas for new approaches to promote salt intake reduction based on consumer insights and establish collaborations to help consumers.

“The work has just begun. The collaborative group now has to work together to introduce a salt awareness campaign for all South African consumers,” says Sayed.

The Durban workshop was sponsored by Unilever and was co-hosted by the Nutrition Society of South Africa.

The Department of Health’s spokesman, Fidel Hadebe, said yesterday regulations controlling the amount of salt in food products were being considered by Dr Motsoaledi. He declined to say when they would be published for comment.

Additional reading:

Government targets salt content of processed food

New study: blood pressure gains minimal from salt reduction

SA’s health department unmoved by new salt study

Salt Institute: Scrap ‘arbitrary’ and ‘capricious’ sodium targets now

The uncomfortable truth about Campbell’s salt u-turn

The Salt Wars rage on: A chat with nutrition professor Marion Nestle

UK: Industry efforts to cut salt content appear wasted on consumers