The Health Ministry has unveiled a new program to reduce the amount of salt in food in Israel. The move is expectedly to have a gradual effect on the taste of most processed foods sold here.

Sunday was World Health Day and the theme for 2013 was high blood pressure. In honor of the event, the Health Ministry released a plan to reduce salt intake by 3 grams a day in the average Israeli’s diet within seven years. The ministry’s nutrition department drew up the national plan.

The new recommendations call for a maximum intake of 3.84 grams of salt a day, or about 1.5 grams of sodium. The absolute upper limit is set at 6.1 grams of salt a day, which translates into 2.4 grams of sodium, about the amount in a teaspoon of salt. Children should consume less salt.

Recent medical research shows excess salt intake in Israel and Britain − some 9 grams per day, about 3.75 grams of sodium; and some 16 grams in China. Israel’s National Nutritional Survey from 2001 shows excess salt consumption, which is worst for males between 25 and 30.

The World Health Organization holds World Health Day every year on April 7 to mark the anniversary of WHO’s founding in 1948. High salt intake is considered one of the risk factors for high blood pressure as well as heart circulatory system diseases − and a risk factor for stroke and kidney dysfunction. Last month, American researchers published a study in the scientific journal Nature showing a connection between the rise in salt consumption in Western countries and a rise in autoimmune diseases, especially multiple sclerosis.

There is very strong scientific evidence that a drop in salt consumption in adults is accompanied by lower blood pressure, wrote the Health Ministry in its position paper on sodium reduction. For children the evidence is less clear.

The plan is to slowly reduce the salt content of processed foods in Israel, with a 20% reduction to come within a few months. The ministry is trying to implement the plan without new laws or regulations, but through cooperation with the food industry, the Manufacturers Association, Israel Chambers of Commerce and the health maintainance organizations.

Estimates are that some 75% of Israeli salt consumption comes from processed foods, only 10% comes in natural foods and the remaining 15% of salt is added at home either in the cooking process or with the salt shaker at the table.

Reducing the amount of salt in processed foods is expected to change their taste in many cases, and that is why the ministry is calling to make the change gradually, a few percent at a time over a period of years − so the public can get used to the less salty taste of the foods, said Prof. Itamar Grotto, head of Public Health Services in the ministry.

A study of the level of sodium in Israelis’ urine is scheduled to start in the next few weeks as part of the salt reduction plan, as well as a study of the actual salt content of processed foods, said Grotto. “In the framework of the study we can determine what are the main sources of salt for Israelis. Are they mostly breads, dairy products such as salty or yellow cheeses, or salads? Based on the results we will know with which foods to start the gradual reduction of salt.”

A number of countries have started similar projects in recent years: Britain started in 2009 and some 75% of food companies there are participating. The average salt consumption in Britain has fallen by 10% in the last decade, to 8.6 grams a day. In the late 1970s Finland started a requirement to label all high-salt products, and this led to a 20% to 25% reduction in the amount of salt in processed foods − and a 40 percent drop in salt consumption in the past three years.

The Health Ministry recommends smart shopping, such as reading labels and choosing those products with lower salt levels − especially in the case of such high-salt foods such as cheeses, bread and breakfast cereals. Israelis should also cut down on sausages, processed and smoked meats, olives and pickles, junk food and nuts, salty crackers, soup mixes, manufactured sauces and soy sauce, TV and other prepared frozen meals and canned vegetables, said the ministry. People should also cut down on adding salt to their meals and eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, said the ministry.

Among the ministry’s recommendations: Try using fresh or dried herbs and spices, or pepper for example, instead of salt. Garlic, lemon and paprika are other suggestions, as well as marinating meats and home-made sauces. Use vegetables instead of mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup in sandwiches and lower-salt cereals.

Getting used to less salt usually takes a few months and should be done gradually, but a quicker drop in salt use is not at all dangerous − though for many people it is hard to get used too, said the ministry.