Pinch of salt
Following Mongolian tradition, Tsagaankhuu Battugs had always used a lot of salt when cooking. “We do not add salt to tea in the Gobi, because the water there is naturally salty,” she says. “But our dishes are quite well seasoned with salt.”
But Battugs changed her habits two years ago after sitting in on 4 “Pinch Salt” lectures organized for the staff of the Makh Impex company, Mongolia’s largest meat producer. The lectures focused on the ways excessive salt consumption contributes to high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack.
Gradually, as recommended by the lecturers, Battugs reduced the amount of salt she used while cooking. That helped her adjust to less salty tasting food. Her company similarly lowered gradually the salt it uses in its products. And it took the same approach to employees’ lunches.
“When I started eating less salty food at work and at home, I was finally able to lose weight and I’m extremely happy about it,” says Battugs. A recent test confirmed she has significantly lowered her sodium level.
“Now everything other than home cooking seems overly salty to me,” Battugs says.
The “Pinch Salt” pilot followed up on a 2011-2012 baseline population survey on salt intake by Mongolians. The results were “alarming,” according to Enkhtaivan Sarnai, a researcher with the Nutrition Division of the National Centre for Public Health (NCPH) of Mongolia.
WHO recommends that people consume no more than 5 grams of salt per day. The Mongolia survey, carried out by NCPH in cooperation with WHO and the Millennium Challenge Corporation of the USA, found that on average, people were consuming more than 11 grams per day. In the province of Uvs, the average daily intake was over 15 grams.
The next step was to see if education could change the habits of food companies (a high percentage of salt intake comes from eating processed foods) and the habits of Mongolian women, who do most of the cooking at home.
Lowering the salt in bread
Two years after the Pinch Salt lectures, a follow-up survey found that 20% of participants recognized the health risks of excess salt intake – up from 4%. Even more importantly, they had reduced their daily salt intake by almost 2 grams.
In addition, the Talkh-Chikher bakery company, which also took part in Pinch Salt, has reduced the level of salt in its products by 12%.
Lkhagvaa Yanjin, the firm’s general manager, says: “I was a member of the group working on this project and of course I wanted to start the process of lowering the salt content in bread from our own company. After all, we are the suppliers of one of the 10 staple foods of Mongolian consumers.”
The company decided to gradually lower the salt content of the country’s popular Atar bread. “The consumers did not notice any change in taste of the Atar bread,” Yanjin says. “And I gather that our competitor company, Atar-Urguu, has also reduced the salt content in their Atar-like bread.”
WHO’s Representative in Mongolia, Dr Soe Nyunt-U, says the Pinch Salt pilot project should be expanded as it powerfully demonstrates that public health organizations and the industry can successfully collaborate to provide consumers with healthy options, without impacting business. We need to expand this fruitful collaboration further.”
“When advocating to the public to lower their salt consumption to prevent hypertension and heart disease, it is often assumed that we are only calling for a change in individual behavior,” says Dr Soe Nyunt-U. “However, most of the salt that people consume is hidden in processed foods. It is essential that the industry works together with public health agencies to reduce the amount of salt in their products.”
The next step, say Mongolian health officials, is a national strategy and an action plan.