How Japanese companies are addressing the global issue of excessive salt intake with umami

By Hisayuki Uneyama, PhD, pharmacist and corporate fellow, science group, global communications department, Ajinomoto

According to research by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, excessive salt intake has been the leading cause for dietary health risk in Asia over the past 30 years. Excessive salt intake can lead to cardiovascular diseases and increased risk of conditions such as cancer, kidney disease, and stroke. With this, regulating salt intake is critical for improving health and well-being in Asia.

In 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) introduced the Noncommunicable Diseases (NCD) Prevention Framework to address the cruciality of the issue, which many countries endorsed. The framework aims to reduce salt intake from 2011 levels by 30% by 2025 and lower global average blood pressure. Despite a decade of efforts, the WHO’s “Global report on sodium intake reduction” released in Mar 2023 showed that nearly 73% of WHO Member States are falling short by not instituting policies that will comprehensively reduce sodium. With the deadline for these goals just over a year away, there is an urgent call to action especially in Asia.

The WHO report indicated that countries in South East Asia, including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Timor-Leste, Maldives, Myanmar, and Nepal, have an average daily sodium intake of about 3921mg, equivalent to 9.8g of salt. This is almost double the WHO recommended daily limit of 2000mg of sodium or 5g of salt. Moreover, no country in South East Asia has introduced more than two effective salt-reducing policies that meet the WHO’s standards. The resistance to reduce salt consumption is deeply rooted in our biology. Like calories, salt plays an essential role in human survival. This is evident from the term “salary”, suggesting that one could not live without salt in ancient times. Consequently, taste buds and brains have evolved to enjoy the flavour it brings, significantly influencing our behavior. Salt enhances food flavour, and many find reduced-salt foods less tasty. For consumers to choose low-salt products, they need to be both affordable and flavourful. Recognising this challenge, Japan is strengthening collaboration between industries, government, and academia to embark on new initiatives.

In Japan, a country known for its longevity and rapidly ageing population, excessive salt intake is a significant health challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that resistance to infectious diseases can be compromised not just by malnutrition but also over-nutrition, such as excessive intake of salt and calories. This “double burden” has been gaining attention as a severe global nutritional issue. In fact, the 2021 Tokyo Nutrition Summit highlighted the importance of over-nutrition, especially as it relates to excessive salt intake. During the summit, Japan declared that given its ageing population, they will take action to encourage sodium reduction.

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