MOST South Africans do not believe tasty food can be made with less salt, and few realise cutting their intake may fend off a heart attack or stroke, according to new research by food giant Unilever.

Getting to grips with consumer attitudes to salt is vital for food producers, as the government is introducing laws restricting the salt content of processed food.

Salt causes high blood pressure, which in turn raises the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Most South Africans consume double the government's recommended daily salt threshold of between four and six grams, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said last year.

Unilever's nutrition and health manager, Nazeeia Sayed, said the company was struggling with consumer acceptance of less salty food products.

"Once they hear 'less salt' they think 'less taste'," she said yesterday, describing how consumers rejected a 25% lower salt content stock cube five years ago. "Although internal testing said it tasted fine, it didn't sell well."

Unilever's latest research, which included two focus groups and 996 respondents to an online survey, found a fifth of respondents added salt at the table before tasting their food.

Ms Sayed said most consumers only considered the health effects of the salt in their diet after being diagnosed with a disorder such as high blood pressure. The Heart and Stroke Foundation's Erika Ketterer said more consumer education was needed.

"A lot of people know a high fat intake is linked to high cholesterol. But it's not the same with salt. Many people don't know that there is a huge amount of salt in processed food; they think it only comes from the salt shaker."

One gram of salt contains about 400 mg of sodium. The element is also found in preservatives such as sodium benzoate and flavour enhancers such as monosodium glutamate.

The Department of Health's spokesman, Fidel Hadebe, said yesterday regulations controlling the amount of salt in food products were being considered by Dr Motsoaledi. He declined to say when they would be published for comment.

kahnt@bdfm.co.za