Learn from Finland: How one country changed its salt habit

Despite having a cuisine rich in meats and dairy, Finland has managed to cut down on its salt consumption drastically. If you ever needed inspiration to cut out salt from your diet, this case would be it!

By Shweta Vepa

A cuisine that largely relies on meat and fish preparations is bound to contain a lot of salt. The Finnish love delicacies like cured meats, pickled fish and different varieties of breads. With the advent of fast food, items like burgers and pizzas slowly made their way into Finnish food. All of these factors put together obviously meant a higher consumption of salt. However, alarmed by the high consumption of sodium, the government decided to get into action and nip the problem in the bud.

The story so far

In 1978, the Finnish Government, on the recommendations of the National Nutrition Council started a national campaign aimed at reducing salt consumption. The largely successful campaign that began in North Karelia is still continuing and has been responsible for drastically cutting down salt consumption. Research findings showed that in the 1970s, salt intake was as much as 12g a day against a recommended 5mg a day! And so began a systematic campaign that has been a combination of mass media campaigns, extensive work with the food industry and educating healthcare personnel. The salt consumption fell from about 12g a day in the late 1970s to 6.8g a day in 2002.

consistent effort

A consistent effort

According to a Special Health Report by Harvard Medical School, only 10% of the sodium in our diet is from the natural content in foods, 10% is from the shaker, and 80% comes from processed and restaurant food. A report by the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland identified different sources of salt in the Finnish diet which included table salt used in households, canned or frozen foods, fish and meat products, sweet bakery products, fat spreads and milk products. As part of Finland's campaign, the government began educating the public about the harmful effects of salt on health, with a focus on blood pressure. The National Nutrition Council made regular monitoring of salt intake mandatory. Population surveys were undertaken every five years to ensure a salt restricted diet.

stringent labelling in food industry

Stringent labelling

Apart from raising awareness, a major factor in the success of this campaign has been the enforcement of labelling in the food industry. The government made it compulsory to include salt content in popular items like cheese, sausages, meat and fish products, breads, broths, soups, powdered concentrate and ready-to-eat foods. The heart symbol on packaged foods was introduced, indicating that the marked product was a healthy choice with salt and fat being the criteria. So, for instance, a whole meat product marked with the heart symbol would have fat content less than 4g per 100g and sodium content less than 800mg per 100g. Today, more than 430 products are marked with the heart symbol with participation from over 70 food companies. Foods that are high in sodium are required to include ‘high salt content’ on their labelling.

This systematic campaign has produced positive results. Apart from a drastic decrease in salt intake, there has been a drop in cases of high blood pressure. Consequently, strokes and heart disease have reduced by almost 80%. According to data by the WHO, today at least 20 countries in Europe have undertaken campaigns to reduce salt consumption.

While a salt-free diet is not practical, we can certainly look at healthier solutions. Pick a low-sodium salt, or better yet, mineral salt, and adopt a healthier lifestyle.

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