Salt reduction is high on the agenda for both industry and regulators, since there is considerable evidence to pointing to a link between high salt consumption and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Many people consume in excess of the UK's advised maximum of 6g per day, and 'hidden' salt in processed foods has been cited as a culprit.
Last March the Food Standards Agency (FSA) published voluntary salt reduction targets for a variety of food products by 2010. The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) claims the UK is leading the world in salt reduction. Its latest survey indicated that members have reformulated £7.4bn worth of products to have lower levels of salt compared to the year before, and £2.4bn worth of products have been launched with lower salt variants. The study unveiled today, coordinated by the Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services (LACORS), assessed the salt content and labelling of 831 products sold at retail in the UK.
Although it said salt content has reduced by 10.9 per cent since May 2005, less than half of the foods tested meet the 2010 targets already. But the major concern highlighted by LACORS is that the labels of some food products broke out salt content for tiny portion sizes.
"There is concern that consumers are being hookwinked and misled by some manufacturers who are deliberately quoting unreasonably small portion sizes on their packaging to mask the true salt content of their products," said Councillor Geoffrey Theobald, chairman of LACORS. "This is worrying as labels provide the main source of information for consumers wanting a healthy and balanced diet."
LACORS called the problem "widespread", but said the product "most culpable of what could be considered as a mechanism to mislead the consumer" is the chicken nugget. "In some cases the unit used on many packets to measure salt content is 15g or a one nugget; some other products use a more realistic 85g baseline unit."
The report does not name offending products by brand, so it was not possible to seek individual manufacturer response on the deliberate hookwinking allegations. The FDF had not issued any comment prior to publication. Debate has been raging over the best way to present information on food labels so as to enable informed purchasing decisions.
At present, there are two different approaches. The FSA's 'traffic light' labelling scheme, based on the controversial nutrient profiling model, ranks the health status of foods according to the sum of their nutrients. The CIAA has also developed a labelling system known as Guidance Daily Amount (GDA), to which some notable major manufacturers now subscribe.
Typically stakeholders fall into either one camp or the other, but some, such as the retailer ASDA, are now proposing labels that draw on the benefits of both.