Malaysians take too much salt. That's a recipe for disaster

The ever-smiling Khan, standing straight before the enormous, black wok that's licked by bright blue flame, knows exactly what I want in my mee goreng.

"Mee kurang, sayur lebih, tak mahu kuah dan gula, garam kurang, kicap kurang, cili lebih," I say.

"Okay, Boss," he gives the thumbs up.

Heh-heh. He's actually committed my wants to memory and my needs to heart. He and his real boss, Haji Ali, know me well enough.

What about you? Do you know what should not flood your food?

Perhaps you do. But know this: The Malaysian Community Salt Survey says Malaysians are consuming about 7.9g (1.6 teaspoons) of salt or 3,167mg of sodium per day. This is more than the recommended intake by the World Health Organisation, which is 5.0g.

Frighteningly, 79 per cent of people in this already sickly nation are consuming too much salt. ('Sickly' because half the adult population are already either obese or overweight.)

The Health Ministry cites these bitter numbers in a document titled "Salt Reduction Strategy to Prevent and Control NCD for Malaysia 2021-2025".

Taking too much salt can end your days on Earth faster than you can say Jack Robinson. The survey says nine out of 10 Malaysians are aware of this peril.

But, fewer are acting on the threat. They are drawn to salt like a moth to a flame. Oh my gosh!

A senior lecturer at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia suggests that the power of tasty food easily casts fear into the shadows.

People, Zalifah Mohd Kasim says, "cannot resist consuming food with high salt. Moreover, these foods are readily available everywhere".

This fatal attraction could also be due to the long arms of tradition reaching out into the future and shaping dietary habits.

The Malay community in times past had used salt to preserve perishable food like fish, keropok, pekasam and eggs. And, the Chinese preserved vegetables and meat using large amounts of salt, too.

But, modern processed foods are now, figuratively speaking, the missiles and bombs threatening to blow us to kingdom come.

Zalifah, from the Department of Food Sciences, Faculty of Science & Technology, cites several examples.

"Malaysian dishes use a lot of soy sauce, oyster sauce, chilli and tomato sauces, which are available in every home. Dishes like fried noodles and fried rice are prepared with these sauces, which are high in salt.

"The Malaysian population is also exposed to Western processed food such as burgers and sausages. They are a favourite with parents, who give them to their children as they are easily obtained."

She is especially concerned about the fast-food industry's growing reach in rural areas.

"The foods sold in these joints are highly processed and have high levels of salt and fat."

It seems the war on the fast-food front is going badly. But what about the restaurants in the neighbourhood? Can we make them 'mend' their ways?

Perhaps, we can get restaurants to make claims about their foods' nutrient content, the same way some products on hypermarket shelves do, so that customers know the stuff is less likely to harm them. Maybe they can put up a sign, above the tray of delightfully red chicken curry, saying "kurang garam".

Zalifah believes that restaurants are liberal with salt. She says they use spices which mask the strength of the salt in gravies, "so you can't tell how much you are actually consuming".

But she is not convinced the "kurang garam" label is practical.

First of all, the law does not require that food sold in restaurants carry any label.

It's a different story with processed foods. For example, a product sold in a hypermarket can claim to have "low" sodium content only if it has 0.12g of sodium per 100g (solids) and 0.06g per 100ml (liquids).

"Any food manufacturer who wants to make a 'low sodium' claim needs to have the food analysed in an accredited laboratory. This is not cheap. Moreover, he has to have a specific recipe or formulation.

"Foods sold in restaurants are different. They do not have exact measurements for salt, sauces and flavour enhancers. These could in fact change based on who is cooking and his mood," says Zalifah.

Aiyah! So that's a dead end, if not a bitter end. What about the size of the fonts on food packaging detailing the nutrient content? 'Small' does not adequately define them. You'd have to push your poor eyes into a squint to read the text.

If cigarette packs can carry large warning labels, why can't it be the same with food?

The director-general of Health himself notes in the salt strategy report that cardiovascular diseases (CVD) account for most noncommunicable disease deaths, and "raised blood pressure is the leading risk factor for CVDs".

He also says "{a}vailable evidence suggests a direct relationship between sodium intake and BP level".

So, can't we have in large, bold text, "1,000mg of sodium" on instant noodle packs, for instance?

But, Zalifah schools me on our regulations.

"Font size in a food label is stipulated in the Malaysian Food Act 1983 and Food Regulation 1985. One cannot simply make the size bigger or smaller."

Her take on the 'war' on salt is this: "Consumers should be educated to choose food which has less salt. This is a far better option than to demand that food sellers use less salt."

Perhaps she is right. There's no point getting salty about this. After all, I did educate Haji Ali and Khan myself in these long years as the blue flame whooshed and the black wok birthed my favourite lunch.

The writer is NST production editor

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