Health authorities have formulated an action plan to improve the nutritional status of residents by tackling hidden ingredients in processed foods such as salt, sugar and transfats that are an indirect cause of disease and early mortality.
As a first step, automatic or traditional bakeries across the country have been asked to reduce salt content from the flour used to make Arabic bread.
The regulations will later be extended to all types of bakeries. At a later stage, salt content in cheese, laban up, pickles, fast foods, snacks and other processed foods will also be regulated using the same methodology.
The plan is also to regulate sugar content in sweetened beverages, transfatty acids/saturated fats in packaged foods and processed foods in restaurants, focus on proper food labelling as well as control sale of junk foods in school canteens.
“We collected data from Abu Dhabi bakeries and it showed that the salt content in the flour being used to bake Arabic bread was 18gm per 1,000gm,” said Latifa Mohammed Rashid, head of the Nutrition Department at the Ministry of Health and Prevention.
The minimum salt requirement as per the World Health Organisation is 5gm per 1,000gm of flour being used to bake bread. “The ministry’s target is to achieve a 30 per cent reduction in salt for all the UAE population by 2018 – 15 per cent each in two years,” she explained.
“At present, the bakeries have volunteered since we do not want the products to change in texture or flavour.if this happens, customers will reject them,” she said.
However, the challenge remains, she said, that since salt reduction will have an impact on the product’s shelf life.
Alarming nutrition situation
The National Action Plan has been developed under the National Nutrition Strategy 2017-2025 and aims at promoting health for all people and reduce the incidence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the country such as blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease that cause premature deaths.
The plan also controls malnutrition in the country ranging from underweight to overweight and obesity to micro-nutrient deficiencies and premature onset of diet-related NCDs, she said.
A survey, results of which are awaited, has been done by students of UAE University in Al Ain to assess the daily intake of salt by UAE residents.
Latifa said that standard guidelines had also been updated for school canteens which included age-proportionate portion sizes, reduced salt and sugar content.
“We have introduced updated regulations and no soft drinks and junk food such as chips are allowed in school canteens,” said Latifa.
She said children were being taught how to read food labels through a coloured chart so as to encourage healthy shopping. “Food labels are important and they should be part of school curriculum,” she added.
However, despite remarkable progress in control of under nutrition among infants and children as well as Vitamin D and Iodine deficiency disorders, there are still a number of nutritional factors that are emerging public health concerns.
Targets of the National Nutrition Action Plan
> Achieve a 50 per cent reduction in anemia of women of reproductive age
> Increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months to up to at least 50%
> Reducing premature mortality from NCDs through healthy diet and physical activity by:
(i) 10 per cent relative reduction in prevalence of insufficient physical activity
(ii) 30 per cent reduction in population of salt intake
(iii) Reach the target of 8gms/100ml in all sugar sweetened beverages
(iv) Meet the target of achieving less than 10% saturated fats and less than 1% trans fats of total calories in packaged foods
(v) Halt the rise in diabetes and obesity