Salt of life dries up in Vietnam

Nov 10, 2012

Diminishing sources of iodine in Vietnam curb efforts to prevent nurological diseases.

Building back

Boosting iodine levels can “theoretically be fairly fast, within months,” - as soon as iodized salt is sold - said Maria Andersson, a scientist with the Human Nutrition Laboratory at the Swiss Institute of Federal Technology and co-author of analyses about IDD trends over the past decade. 

But the reality of how long it takes to reach the entire population with iodized salt depends on the effectiveness, knowledge and commitment of salt producers to iodize salt; whether laws require it; monitoring and control measures for iodine content; and the support the food industry has to include iodized salt in its products, she told IRIN.

For iodine nutrition to improve, the iodized salt needs to make it into households, and into their food - and most importantly - be consumed, said Andersson. It also needs to be well-packed so iodine is not lost during storage and transit.

It is also a question of how much time it takes to clear the shelves of non-iodized salt, which “won’t happen overnight”, said Roger Mathisen, a nutrition specialist at UNICEF’s office in Vietnam.

1271 No iodized salt for sale, but plenty of fish sauce and MSG. PHOTO: Phuong Tran/IRINWhat to fortify?

In Vietnam, agencies and NGOs have looked to fortifying the widely-consumed fish sauce (made by fermenting fish with salt) with nutrients missing in diets.

Also popular is `bot canh’, a powder that includes salt, pepper and monosodium glutamate. In a 2010 survey of some 400 pregnant women in rural northern Vietnam (Ha Nam Province, 50km south of the capital), a quarter of the women reported not using iodized salt or cooking powders. Women said they felt iodized salt made food taste bitter and that monosodium glutamate or `bot canh’ made it taste “smoother”.

Salt iodization and fortification levels need to take account of the population’s iodine needs and how - and how much - people consume salt, Andersson added.

It is better to target salt, as most condiments already include it, said UNICEF’s Mathisen, who noted regulating the salt industry is easier than setting up parallel monitoring and enforcement systems.

With funding from the US Agency for International Development, UNICEF is advocating that the government revive salt iodization by making it mandatory once again, re-establishing national oversight, and shifting KIO3 procurement from the government’s budget to the salt industry’s so the consumer bears the cost, which is minimal said Le with the Hospital of Endocrinology. “We are talking about a price difference [between iodized and non-iodized salt] of 250 VND [one US cent] - less than the cost of a cigarette.”

Parliamentarians have agreed on the need to control IDD, but are reticent to tackle it again, he added. “It can be harder rebuilding something than it was to build it in the first place.”

But it is not just a question of building back, said Mathisen. “The issue is how to build back better. What existed was obviously not sustainable.”

This article was first published in IRIN.