UK food formulators and manufacturers should be applauded for their progress on salt reduction, say the findings of a survey from the Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH).
"The UK is leading the world on salt reduction many of our food manufacturers should be congratulated on the effort they have made to reduce the amount of salt they add to our foods," said CASH chairman, Professor Graham MacGregor.
But the news is not all rosy for food manufacturers with the announcement coinciding with the Salt Awareness Week (Jan 29th Feb 4th), which is calling for consumers to boycott food that still have large and unnecessary amounts of salt added.
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.
"Over the years we have surveyed many food categories and highlighted the foods with the highest salt contents. In this latest survey, we revisited 127 products we have previously 'named and shamed' to see how their salt contents have changed. We also looked at some examples of high-salt foods for which lower-salt alternatives now exist," said MacGregor.
"I am very pleased to say that two thirds of the foods we re-surveyed (66 per cent) have reduced their salt concentration. This is really good news, as research shows that for every 1 gram per day average reduction in the UK population's intake of salt, 7,000 deaths from strokes and heart attacks would be prevented," he said.
Numerous scientists are convinced that high salt intake is responsible for increasing blood pressure (hypertension), a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD) - a disease that causes almost 50 per cent of deaths in Europe.
CVD is reported to cost the EU economy an estimated €169bn ($202bn) per year.
While much progress has clearly been made in reducing the salt content of various foods, CASH has reiterated that some products still contain very high levels of salt, many of which are aimed at children, and, according to the FSAs traffic light labelling system, would qualify for a 'red' label.
"In every case there are lower salt alternatives on the market and we now feel that people should boycott these persistently high-salt products," said Jo Butten, nutritionist for CASH.
"If sales of these products fall, the manufacturers will be forced to reformulate them, so we would urge shoppers not to buy products that contain either more than 1.25g of salt (0.5g of sodium) per 100g or more than 2.4g of salt per serving," she said.
The survey revealed that the largest source of salt in the UK is bread, but CASH notes that many bakers have achieved salt reduction to achieve loaves containing around 0.8g 1.0g of salt per 100g.
"Any bread that contains more than 1.25g of salt per 100g should be boycotted, as lower salt alternatives exist," said CASH in a release.
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.