CAPE TOWN: Many of the children's meals served up by international fast-food chains in SA contain dangerously high levels of salt, according to a new survey that adds to the pressure on the sector to offer up healthier products.
The Department of Health has already passed regulations requiring food manufacturers to sell less salty products by June next year. While these rules will have a positive knockon effect on the restaurants and fastfood chains that use their ingredients in meals, the department is not letting these businesses off the hook.
"We have met with most of the major fast-food companies and discussed the need to start reducing the discretionary salt as well," said the department's head of noncommunicable diseases, Melvyn Freeman.
The 37-nation survey, conducted by the UK-based World Action on Salt and Health (Wash), found the South African KFC chicken burger was the saltiest of all, with 2.91g of salt - almost the entire daily allowance recommended for a child aged between four and six years old by the UK Scientific Advisory Council on Nutrition.
The survey also puts the onus on fast-food retailers to explain why there is such wide variation in the salt content of the same meals sold in different countries, said Wash UK's Clare Farrand. A children's meal Chicken McNuggets and fries sold by McDonald's in Turkey contains 2.4g of salt, while the same meal contains 1.67g of salt in SA (the third saltiest) but only 0.78g in the UK.
KFC SA spokesperson Gail Sham said salt reduction was part of the company's global strategy and it had made varying progress in the markets it operated in. "We also believe in informing our customers about the nutritional content of meal items, which are available on our website," Sham said.
McDonald's SA corporate affairs director Sechaba Motsieloa said the company regularly undertook consumer research to determine taste preferences. "Over the last few years, a number of proactive salt reduction programmes have taken place, such as the reduction of salt in chicken McNuggets, french fries and buns," Motsieloa said.
A high salt intake raises the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease and osteoporosis. The World Health Organisation recommends that adults consume no more than 5g (a teaspoon) of salt a day, and the UK's scientific advisory committee on nutrition suggests young children eat much less than this - less than 1g for infants and less than 3g for a child aged between four and six.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation's Christelle Crickmore said children acquire a taste for salt early in life, and so limiting the amount in their diet early on had a knock-on effect on their habits as adults. There was limited data on South African salt consumption, with studies suggesting the average daily intake ranged between 6g and 11g, she said.
Junk food intake is soaring in SA: a report released last year by Discovery's Vitality found more than two-thirds of teenagers ate fast food at least three times a week. The survey found many children, even those from poor families, were buying food from school tuck shops or informal vendors that had few healthy food choices.