Taking salt off the menu

PHOTO: Taking salt off the menu

JAPAN - Programs promoting the reduction of salt in food have been spreading around the country, in households and across communities. Low-salt foods suffer from a reputation for blandness. But restaurants and bento shops offer a variety of menus geared toward low-salt diets, which help people reduce their salt intake.

The Kashiwazaki Kyushoku Center Cooperative Association in Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture, makes and delivers bento to offices and factories. They have developed a new meal - a reduced-calorie "healthy bento" - which contains less than 3.5 grams of salt, about one gram lower than a normal bento.

In February, the center, with help from the Kashiwazaki Public Health Center, prepared a new monthlong menu. It invited 75 men and women to taste the new items, and about 80 per cent of them were satisfied with the new dishes.

The new items included a radish salad flavored with mustard and a cutlet created by sandwiching shiso leaves and cheese between two slices of koya-dofu (freeze-dried tofu).

Nami Makiguchi, a nutritionist involved in planning the menu, said, "Our staff tried to vary the tastes and flavors in the bento."

The center is considering delivering the healthy bento to individual customers.

In fiscal 2009, the Niigata prefectural government began its "Niigata Gen-en Runesansu Undo" (Salt reduction renaissance campaign) to reduce the daily salt intake of residents by two grams: a reduction of one gram from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2012 and another gram from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2018.

The government started the program because of the high number of people in the prefecture who die of stomach cancer or strokes, ailments to which excess salt is often a contributing factor, according to prefectural officials.

The campaign is aimed at promoting community-wide salt reduction programs, such as working with local companies to popularize soy sauce bottles with reduced-pour spouts that release just one drop at a time.

According to dietary guidelines set by the central government, the recommended daily intake of salt is less than 9.0 grams for men and less than 7.5 grams for women.

A 2010 survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry on national health and dietary habits showed average daily salt intake per adult to be 11.4 grams for men and 9.8 grams for women. Recently, those numbers have decreased--but only slightly. People are dining out and using ready-made dishes more often, circumstances that make it difficult to reduce salt intake.

Some restaurants helping out

In Hiroshima Prefecture, about 50 restaurants in Kure and surrounding municipalities are working together to provide menu items with two to three grams of salt. The dishes are also less than 600 kilocalories and are made with local ingredients.

Local physician Miho Kusaka, a member of the salt reduction panel of the Japanese Society of Hypertension, proposed the project for healthy foods to be offered by the restaurants.

The project started in 2008 with eight eateries participating. "Even when doctors tell people to reduce salt, it's not easy for them to do. I think it's easier if they have tasty, low-salt meals available," she said.

In late May, the country's first-ever event dedicated to highlighting the importance of salt reduction was held in Kure. It was organized by The Yomiuri Shimbun together with other organizations. Restaurants set up stalls to offer low-salt meals, and demonstrations of low-salt cooking were held.

"Excessive salt intake can lead not only to high blood pressure but also to stomach cancer, strokes and heart and bone disease," said Yuhei Kawano, a member of the board of directors of the Japanese Society of Hypertension.

Kawano also heads the lifestyle-related diseases section of the National Cerebral and Cardiovascular Center in Suita, Osaka Prefecture.

"It's necessary to expand salt-reduction movements nationwide to reduce medical costs," Kawano said.