x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Salt levels in UAE food spark fears

A health authority is urging the Government to regulate salt in food after some brands in the UAE were found to be among the world's saltiest.

ABU DHABI // Doctors are urging the Government to regulate salt in food after some brands in the UAE were found to be among the world's saltiest. UAE versions of products from global companies such as KFC and Kellogg's contain more salt than those sold in other countries, according to figures compiled by World Action on Salt and Health (Wash) and information obtained by The National. A serving of KFC popcorn chicken bought in the UAE has 4.7g of salt - more than the same product in the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The Malaysian version has just 1.68g of salt, barely a third the amount of the UAE portion. A serving of Kellogg's Cornflakes in the Middle East contains 1g of salt - the highest of any country tested. Cardiologists and nutrition experts said too much salt could increase the risk of high blood pressure - or hypertension - and lead to strokes and heart disease, a major killer in the Emirates. Dr Wael al Mahmeed, the president of the Emirates Cardiac Society, noted that the World Health Organisation recommends that people have no more than a teaspoon - 5g - of salt a day. "Here, the average is 7g a day," he said. "Some people are taking much higher."

He said consumer demand alone might not be enough to sway companies to lower salt levels. "They won't do it on their own. The local food authorities and the Ministry of Health should set regulations," he said. "If salt content is higher here than in the US, for example, we should ask [the food makers] to at least make them uniform. "In the UAE, it's very important to educate people that salt is a risk factor for hypertension," he added. "People don't realise they should be cutting the amount of salt in their food. A lot of Emiratis eat fast food. KFC in particular is extremely popular."

A KFC fillet burger in the Emirates contains 3.5g of salt, exceeded only by New Zealand's 3.7g per serving. In Malaysia, it has 0.83g. Two McChicken sandwiches in the UAE, adding up to 4.6g of salt, would account for nearly an entire day's recommended salt intake. The global figures were compiled by Wash, a British lobby group, and the UAE amounts were given by the manufacturers' UAE or regional offices. Marketing and regional tastes might have a lot to do with the variations, said Ellen Edwards, the chief dietician at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City.

"It's serious, hi-tech marketing and research on how to get the best sales," she said. "And salt sells." Ms Edwards pointed out that Burger King UAE scored lower on the Wash table than many of its international counterparts. But she favoured legal controls because "presently people don't know how much sodium they're getting".

Dr Mustafa Arici, a spokesman for Wash, agreed that cultural habits and taste could account for the salt variances. "We like salty food in this part of the world," he said. "The climate in the UAE is hot, so it may be an issue because if you lose too much salt in sweat, you must replace it." Health authorities in countries such as the US, Britain and Turkey had striven to reduce salt consumption, he said. "Efforts by the UAE Government to do the same should be supported."

After pressure from lobbying groups in the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began labelling food with sodium levels based on a maximum of 2.4g per day. In Britain, a target has been set to halve the current recommendation of 6g of salt a day to 3g by 2025. A McDonald's filet-o-fish in the UAE was near the top of the chart with 1.8g, against 1.43g in Australia, the lowest region. Rafic Fakih, the managing director of McDonald's UAE, attributed the difference to factors such as the fish used, a range of food producers and variations that might be introduced during cooking. The figures also have a margin of error of 20 per cent.

"Where there are no particular salt restrictions, we strive for consistency around the world. We do not seek higher salt contents in some countries than others." Mr Fakih added that McDonald's was working to centralise its testing and reporting of nutritional information to eliminate confusion.

Neither KFC Arabia nor Burger King UAE would comment. Subway UAE declined to provide the information, but said in a statement: "The Subway chain has made a commitment to reduce sodium, and has been working aggressively to reduce sodium in all products." The company plans to provide sodium information in its stores and on its website.

Kellogg's dismissed the findings. "Product sold by Kellogg distributors in the Middle East is European product, and will therefore be the same formula and content across all markets," the company said. "Kellogg formulas for the same product can vary across the world, based on geographical variances in consumer taste preferences and ingredient supplies."

Dr Afzal Yusufali, a consultant cardiologist at Dubai Hospital, said a comprehensive UAE study of factors such as high blood pressure was being compiled. "There is a need to estimate more accurately the amount of salt we consume in the UAE before we embark on a well-organised national policy regarding the recommended salt intake."

The Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority did not respond to requests for comment.

mkwong@thenational.ae