Are our salt and sugar intake levels dropping?

Salt and sugar are two of my favourite things. For me, that’s a big problem, because I have a lot of trouble resisting my favourite things. Whenever I have a side of chips, I reach for the salt. On pies, I must have tomato sauce, and it must not be salt reduced! And I struggle after dinner without a sugar hit of some description.

These are not good habits. A high salt intake is not good for blood pressure, and a high sugar intake isn’t good for waistlines. High blood pressure is a major issue for Australian health, potentially leading to stroke and heart attacks. And large waistlines also have a strong correlation to adverse heart events. 

Clearly, then, I need to be better. But it’s been generally accepted for some time that food manufacturers need to do better, too. To that end, the Australian government combined forces with a number of food manufacturers in 2020 to launch the Partnership Reformulation Program (PFP). 

The aim of the program was to reduce the amount of saturated fat, sodium and sugar in Australian manufactured and processed foods. And this week the Australian Bureau of Statistics released a progress report on the program.

Salt, sugar and the Partnership Reformulation Program

The Partnership Reformulation Program’s overarching aims are ones from which all Australians stand to gain:

  • help reduce overweight and obesity
  • help reduce diet-related diseases, including chronic conditions
  • improve the overall health of Australians
  • lower the significant cost of healthcare to our economy.

Those population aims broadly align with my personal ones, and those of many Australians. Achieving them is not necessarily easy. To help us all get there the PFP set two original targets in 2020: sodium reduction targets set for 27 food categories and saturated fat reduction targets for five food categories.

In 2021, the program was expanded to include a further 14 categories. Nine of these set sugar reduction targets and five focused on salt reduction. The full list of included foods covers 80 per cent of the categories, by sales volume, of participating businesses.

The original 2020 categories, collectively known as Wave 1, follow a different timeline to the 14 additional ones (Wave 2).

So, how are we progressing?

The new release from the ABS provides reporting results from Wave 2, and reveals some seemingly positive developments. Progress has been made on both the sugar and salt fronts. 

Sodium data was provided for 249 products across five processed foods categories, of which the majority (180) were ready meals. The remaining products consisted of breakfast cereals and popcorn.

The ABS report found that, of the products in scope for sodium reformulation, 16 per cent recorded a decrease in sodium content between June 2021 and June 2023. This translates to an estimated reduction of less than 1mg per capita per day. That doesn’t sound like much, but is the equivalent to 3.3 tonnes of sodium over the year to June 2023.

A similar story has played out with sugar between June 2021 and June 2023. Of the 199 participating products in scope, 32 per cent recorded a decrease in their sugar content. 

The reduction in sugar from participating products was less than 0.1 gram per capita per day. 

Salt, sugar and statistics – what does this all mean?

The ABS report shows progress is being made, but it’s probably not unfair to say that progress is painfully slow. Too slow? I believe the ‘population impact’ statements provided in the report give us a clue.

The impact statement for sugar says participating products delivered a 1.3 per cent decrease in total sugars. “In per capita terms this amounted to a decrease of less than 0.1 gram per day from the estimated total sugar consumption of 109 grams per capita, per day.”

That seems like an almost miniscule reduction, but the report puts a somewhat positive spin on that figure: “Although the daily per capita reduction appears negligible, over a year (2022-23) the sugar reformulation resulted in a total of 261 fewer tonnes of sugar being consumed compared to the baseline levels.”

I do not pretend to be a statistical expert, but I’d be inclined to couch the numbers in opposite terms. Sure, 261 tonnes sounds like a huge reduction. But a decrease of 0.1 gram per day per person sounds alarmingly low as a proportion of 109 grams. In fact, percentage-wise, it’s only 0.1 per cent. Add to that the fact that the recommended daily intake of sugar is only 50 grams, and it suggests progress is far too slow.

Getting salty

The reduction in salt intake is sadly equally disappointing. Says the ABS report:

“Taking account of the sales volumes of products … from industry-supplied data … consumption of sodium for the Australian population fell by 0.3 mg per capita per day. This is equivalent to a 0.01 per cent decrease in the estimated total consumption of 3093mg of sodium per capita per day in June 2021.”

A drop of 0.3mg as a percentage of 3093mg is surely inarguably ‘negligible’. And again, 3093mg is more than 1000mg beyond the recommended 2000mg of sodium. Imagine a person with an average daily sodium intake of 3093mg in 2024. Reducing that intake by 0.3mg every two years from today, when would they reach the target of 2000mg? 

The answer is, in the year 5668. And while life expectancy continues to rise, living beyond an age of 3600 might be a bit much to ask. Especially if we don’t lower our salt and sugar intake.

The government does set out specific salt and sugar targets for the various food groups, including a target date for each. Achieving these targets would undoubtedly be a good outcome.

But the problem here is that the participating products represent a tiny fraction of our overall intake. The ABS report itself explains that: “If 100 per cent of eligible products within the five selected food categories participated in this wave of sodium reformulation, these categories would account for 2.4 per cent of total dietary sodium consumption.”

The story is similar for sugar, with just a 2 per cent representation.

All is not lost

The good news is that, if the non-participating products follow the lead of those who are participating, salt and sugar intake levels will drop far more quickly.

As a result of the steps taken by the government at the end of the PFP, that could happen. This might be via enforceable rule changes or similar.

However, it’s probably incumbent on us as individuals to become more proactive in this area, too. We can start by paying closer attention to nutrition labels. Look for both the sugar and sodium content per 100g, and opt for the product with lower amounts.

With my love of both salt and sugar, I am part of that problem, so I too resolve to be more proactive. 

Are you aware of your daily salt and sugar intake levels? Would you like to lower those? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Calls to end our salt habit and save lives

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Brad Lockyer
Brad Lockyer
Brad has deep knowledge of retirement income, including Age Pension and other government entitlements, as well as health, money and lifestyle issues facing older Australians. Keen interests in current affairs, politics, sport and entertainment. Digital media professional with more than 10 years experience in the industry.
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