Younten Tshedup

If the curry doesn’t taste good, the immediate reaction is to add some more salt to it.  While our taste buds approve of it, experts say this is not a healthy habit.

The average Bhutanese consume almost twice (8.3 grams) the recommended value (5 grams) of salt by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

According to the health ministry and WHO’s latest STEPS survey on the non-communicable disease (NCD) risk factors, more than 10 percent of the respondents reported adding extra salt often or always to food right before or while eating.

To raise awareness of the damaging effects of excess salt consumption, global salt awareness week is observed this week between March 8 and 11 with the theme – more flavour, less salt.

Salt and sodium are used synonymously today.  But on a weight basis, salt is composed of 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride.  As per the composition, a gram of salt is equivalent to 400 milligrams (mg) of sodium, and a gram of sodium contains 2.5 gram of salt.

Health officials said that annually over nine million deaths around the world are associated with high blood pressure, resulting from consuming excessive salt.  Eating too much salt has been linked to high blood pressure, increased risk for heart and kidney diseases, increased water retention, which can lead to swelling in the body, and dehydration.

An official said that, in the long run, excessive consumption of salt can cause hypertension and other NCDs, particularly cardiovascular diseases, all of which are already highly prevalent in Bhutan.

NCD, including hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and diabetes, accounted for 71 percent of the reported deaths in the country in 2019.  According to the annual health bulletin 2020, 33.5 percent of the Bhutanese were overweight, 28 percent had blood pressure and 1.9 percent had raised blood pressure.

Officials from the health ministry said that for a body to function properly, a minimum intake of less than 500mg of sodium is required daily.  WHO recommends reducing salt intake to less than 5 grams per day, which is equal to about a teaspoon of salt.

Globally, the majority of salt consumed is in the form of dietary salt.  According to officials, in Bhutan, the source of dietary salt is mostly from discretionary salt — salt added while cooking and from pre-packaged processed food.

Other sources of high salt in Bhutanese food include butter tea (suja), ezay, pickles, cheese poached in butter and oil with salt, rice broth with meat or cheese, and chilli with cheese (ema datse), among others.

According to the STEPS survey, a higher percent of women reported adding salt or salty sauce always or often to the food compared to men and the frequency was higher among the younger age group of 15-24 years.

It was also found that rural residents had a higher percentage of respondents adding salt often to food compared to urban residents.  A significant difference was also observed across regions where the highest percentage was recorded in the western region and the lowest was in the central region for adding salt and salty sauces to food.

Compared to the STEPS survey 2014, the latest survey conducted in 2019 highlighted a significant increase in adding salt or salty sauces often to food among the respondents — 11.8 percent in 2019 against 7.8 percent in 2014.

However, the percentage of respondents reporting often consuming salty tea in the household significantly reduced from 17.5 percent in 2014 to 12.7 percent in 2019.  The reduction was most prominent among rural populations where the consumption was the highest — 16.9 percent in 2019 and 21.9 percent in 2014.

Health officials said that people should change their dietary habits and consume food that is healthier. “More salt might make the food tasty for many, it doesn’t add any value health-wise. In fact, this is a very unhealthy habit and should be immediately changed,” said a health official.

The health ministry has a working strategy — the national salt reduction strategy (2018-2023) that aims to decrease the salt intake among the population by 15 percent (7.6 grams per day) by 2023.