New Delhi, May 16 (IANS) Browsing through the ready-to-eat food section in a supermarket is an exciting experience. From snacks to dinner to a post-dinner munch, your dining table can be pretty much filled with a variety of dishes in a jiffy. Doctors, however, warn that the high sodium content of processed food can push you towards hypertension early on.
According to a study by the George Institute for Global Health India, a public health NGO, 73 percent of the 7,124 food products they sampled were found to have not displayed their salt or sodium content in their labels.
Although display of salt content is not mandatory under India's food packaging rules, experts nevertheless feel that this information can help consumers keep a tab on their salt consumption through this medium.
"Excess salt intake can lead to high blood pressure, coupled with lack of exercise, obesity, stress and tension," S. Chatterjee, senior consultant, Internal Medicine at the Apollo Hospital here, told IANS.
Although someone not pre-disposed to hypertension - meaning no family history of this - is relatively safer, it is nevertheless becoming a "growing problem" in India because more and more people are falling victim to it thanks to changing lifestyles.
"Packaged food, processed food and ready-to-eat meals all have high salt content. They are also high in cholesterol and oil, and regular consumption leads to weight gain and obesity, and in turn, hypertension," Chatterjee said. Hypertension is a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, kidney ailments and strokes.
Because of changes in lifestyle - late working hours, high stress levels, lack of exercise, and increase in consumption of junk or processed food - the age-profile of people affected by hypertension has also fallen.
"Earlier it was the 50 or 50 plus age-group that used to come with such problems, now the age-profile has fallen to 30-34. Even adolescents are at risk because childhood obesity is becoming common," commented K.K. Saxena, a cardiologist at Apollo Hospital.
Agreed Manoj Kumar, cardiologist at the Max Super Speciality Hospital here, adding that every third or fourth person in India is hypertensive.
"Nowadays I get patients as young as 25 who are hypertensive. These are mostly people working in high-stress jobs like call centres, where sleep is often compromised with and there is access to packaged food most of the time," Manoj Kumar told IANS.
"It's also pertinent to mention here that these lifestyle changes also lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes," he added.
Experts estimate the number of patients in India with high blood pressure will rise from 140 million in 2008 to 215 million by 2030 along with an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, kidney ailments and other diseases.
According to WHO, the recommended salt intake per day is five grams. While regular food may be prepared with just the right amount of salt, other food items like bakery products, pickles, chutneys and sauces, papad, non-alcoholic beverages and canned food often contribute in the "extra" consumption. Raw salt over salads and fruits, doctors say, should be taken with caution or avoided altogether.
"With the change in trends, it is advisable for anyone above the age of 30 to go for regular blood pressure screening. There are no symptoms and, therefore, if such a condition is detected during screening, the cause can be detected and mended before it is too late," Manoj Kumar said.
"Also, early detection means lifestyle changes can be made to treat the disease, and this is the cheapest way to do so. Hypertension is a chronic illness and drug treatment is a lifelong process. Just 50 percent hypertensive people are aware of their illness, and therefore early detection is an absolute must," he added.
WHO has recommended a global target of reducing premature mortality caused by non-communicable diseases by 25 percent by 2020 by cutting salt intake by 30 percent.
(Azera Rahman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)