Red light for salt and sugar

Health authorities bringing in regulations; traffic colour-coding for food items
By Nadia Fazlulhaq

From fried snacks or ‘bites’, salted nuts, fried sausages, dried-fish sambol to sugary sweets and beverages, extremely sweet or salty food and drinks are part and parcel of our daily life. But, a recent survey which showed that increased doses of salt and sugar in food were contributing to a rise in non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart diseases, high-blood pressure and obesity, has led health authorities to draft regulations as part of their salt-and-sugar-reduction programme.

Tea boutiques have been requested to serve sugar separately

Though the daily requirement of salt is five grams (one teaspoon), an average Sri Lankan consumes about 10 to 15 grams. The sugar requirement is between 10 and 12 grams (two teaspoons) a day but a Lankan consumes about 60 grams, a top official said.

The Health Ministry’s non-communicable diseases unit chief, Dr. Thalatha Liyanage, said about 70 per cent of the country’s deaths wws due to non-communicable diseases linked to the increased intake of salt and sugar over a long period. She said the proposed regulations would require tea boutiques, food outlets and restaurants to provide sugar and salt separately instead of adding to the meal or drink.

Dr. Liyanage said that in most wayside tea boutiques in Sri Lanka, a cup of tea contained more sugar than was necessary.

The regulations also propose a colour-coding system or what Dr. Liyanage describes as ‘traffic-light food labelling’. Food and beverage products are to be labelled red, amber and green, indicating high, medium and low salt or sugar concentration.

The NCD unit chief said the regulations were still at discussion level and they were faced with practical limitations such as lack of facilities to monitor a large number of small-scale sweet and snacks manufacturers. Therefore, at the initial stage, the regulations will be applied to packeted food items and beverages.

The Food Advisory Committee of the Health Ministry will form a subcommittee which will consult the Food Processors Association, the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and medical professionals in formulating the regulations and methods to reduce the salt or sugar content in food items. The Health Ministry has also requested the Sri Lanka Standards Institution to set low salt and sugar levels as criteria in granting the SLS certificate to food items.

The Medical Research Institute’s Nutrition Department chief, Dr. Renuka Jayatissa, said 70 per cent of the salt intake of an average person was from home-made food, 10 per cent from natural food and 20 per cent from processed food.

“It is important to reduce the amount of salt used at home gradually so that the family will get used to it. It is better to avoid adding salt to rice while cooking,” she said According to Dr. Jayatissa, fried snacks and chips, processed fast food, salted dried fish, soup cubes, pickle, sausages, cheese, marmite and ketchup are some of the items that include high sodium. Carbonated beverages, sweets both locally-made and imported, cakes, doughnuts, energy drinks, fruit juices with high amount of added sugar, ketchup, and cream biscuits contain high amounts of sugar content.

“We are holding discussions with manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar and salt in their products,” she said adding that they feared a drop in sales if the amount of sugar or salt which was also used as preservative was reduced. “But food labelling depicting the salt or sugar content is important,” she said.

Deadly bites: Salted nuts and all that’s sweet is not good for you.

Recently, scientists at King's College in London and the National Diabetes Centre (Sri Lanka) found a high prevalence of Type 2 diabetes risk factors among the young urban population in Sri Lanka.“Most of these highly salty or sweet food items are consumed by the young urban population,” she said.

Studies have also shown that one in five adults has either diabetes or pre-diabetes and that about 30 per cent of women above 30 years of age and 19 per cent of men have higher Body Mass Index (BMI).

The Health Ministry’s Food Control Unit has issued circulars to all Medical Officers of Health and Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) to conduct programmes to create awareness among the people and small-scale sweet and snack manufacturers. “This should be a voluntary reduction,” said H. Tillakeratne, the head of the unit.

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