Over 35 per cent of commercial bread in the UK does not meet FSA targets for salt levels, says a new survey from the Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) that looks set to maintain pressure on UK bakers to reduce the salt content of their products.
CASH are said to have looked at the salt content of 138 loaves of wrapped bread commercially available in UK supermarkets and found that 36 per cent contained more than 1.1 grams of salt per 100g - the target salt level for bread set by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
"Much work has been done over the years to reduce the salt that is added to our bread, but we want all breads to contain as little salt as possible. It's clear that bread can be produced with lower levels of salt with no effect on sales. So why are the other bakers not cutting salt further?" asked Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of CASH and professor of cardiovascular medicine.
"The public should boycott these higher salt breads, that is those with more than 1.1g of salt/100g, until they are reduced," he said.
Salt is of course a vital nutrient and is necessary for the body to function, but CASH considers the average daily salt consumption in the western world, between 10 and 12g, far too high.
The pressure has been mounting on food manufacturers to reduce the salt content of their foods and the UK's food standards agency (FSA) recommendation of six grams of salt per day for the general population is understood to be more a realistic target for the next five years than the ideal healthy limit.
In the UK, Ireland and the USA, over 80 per cent of salt intake comes from processed food, with 20 per cent of salt intake coming from meat and meat products, and about 35 per cent from cereal and cereal products.
"Bread is the largest source of salt in the UK diet, so if the salt content of all the bread on sale in the UK was that of the lowest levels found in this survey – around 0.6g to 0.8g of salt per 100g – we could cut the average population daily intake of salt by around 1g," said MacGregor.
"If bakers cut their salt levels to those of the lowest salt products already on the market, they would effectively save the lives of 7,000 people each year in this country," he said.
The survey found that the bread with the lowest salt content contained only 0.55 grams per 100 grams (Burgen's Wholegrain and Cranberry), while the highest salt content was found to be 1.5g salt per 100g (Asda's Medium White Big Loaf and Morrison's The Best Farmhouse Malted Bread).
CASH found that some white loaves contained about 150 per cent more salt than other white breads, while some granary and malted loaves have almost double the salt content of others.
"The differences in salt content between these breads may appear unimportant," said Jo Butten, nutritionist for CASH, "but we eat so much bread, as a nation, that these variations can add up to major differences in the amount of salt we eat.
"People need to be aware of these differences and seek out the lower salt options, avoiding breads that contain more than the FSA target of 1.1g of salt per 100g, which includes just over 36 of the bread we surveyed."
Yet not everyone agrees with the science behind CASH's claims. Robert Speiser, director of EuSalt, told FoodNavigator last year that he strongly disputes the need for salt intake restrictions.
Speiser's concern is that some regulatory bodies, such as the FSA in the UK, focus on certain scientific studies and neglect others. Indeed, many scientific institutions that hold opinions different to EuSalt, such as the Institute of Food Science and Technology, acknowledge that much is still unknown about the relationship between salt consumption and health.
In addition, salt remains a vitally important compound in food manufacturing, in terms of taste and preservation. In processed meat products, for example, salt is involved in activating proteins to increase water-binding activity, improves the binding and textural properties of proteins, helps with the formation of stable batters with fat, and also extends shelf-life with its anti-microbacterial effects.