KUWAIT CITY, Sept 30 — Dried fish, cheese … bread?

The latter may not be the first product that comes to mind when considering which foods contribute large quantities of salt to our diets. But in Kuwait, cutting the amount of salt in locally produced bread is central to the Gulf State’s efforts to reduce people’s blood pressure.

The Kuwait authorities, working with the country’s main bakery, have taken bold action to reduce salt content in the most popular type of bread.

“This is a great example of commitment and collaboration between related sectors and an even greater example of partnership,” says Dr. Nawal Al-hamad, chair of Kuwait’s Salt and Fat Intake Reduction Task Force (SIRTF), and Director of the Food and Nutrition Administration at the country’s Ministry of Health.

In 2010, the Food and Nutrition Administration was confronted by some uncomfortable truths. Almost one quarter of Kuwaiti males and females aged 20-49 suffered from hypertension. More than 60% of Kuwaiti males over the age of 50 had raised blood pressure.

One reason was that, on average, Kuwaiti adults were eating between 12-15 grams of salt a day, well above the daily WHO recommended maximum of 5 grams per adult.

Yet the Kuwaiti studies also revealed a potential solution to this blood pressure problem, by pinpointing bread as a key source of salt in people’s diets.

The Food and Nutrition Administration was uniquely placed to intervene thanks to the fact that one government-owned bakery produces most of the country’s bread. The Kuwait Flour Mills and Bakeries Company makes and distributes nationwide over 3 million flatbreads a day. What better product to target, health officials realised, than the nation’s most consumed type of bread?

In January 2013, the Ministry of Health established the SIRTF. WHO expert and chair of Consensus Action on Salt and Health, Professor Graham MacGregor, advised the consultation process. Joining Kuwaiti officials, however, were not only food scientists and members of Kuwait’s Food Standards Office, but executives from the bakery.

Just two months later, the national salt reduction programme saw its first result: a 10% reduction in the salt content of white flat bread. By the end of 2013, that reduction had doubled, and the bakery’s entire range of bread, from burger buns to whole-wheat toast, also saw a 20% cut in salt.

At a 2014 Food Standards Committee meeting in Dubai, a bakery representative was a key member of the Kuwaiti delegation. “Our new target is to reduce salt by another 10% in the next 18 months,” says Ibtehal Abulkareem Al-Salem, the company’s Laboratories and Quality Manager.

Looking to replicate the success achieved with bread, Kuwait is moving on other fronts. It is taking steps to reduce salt levels in the country’s second high-salt commonly consumed food item: cheese.

The Task Force has also included corn flakes in its plan for salt reduction, meeting with food industry manufacturers to push for this, following the Government’s initiative to subsidize corn flakes so to increase milk consumption in children and adolescents.

Kuwait has led the way for other Gulf countries to reduce salt in bread. Now Qatar is working a major national bakery to reduce salt by 20%, and Bahrain is about to do likewise.