Every day at least 26 million people in the UK eat more than salt than is good for them, said the Food Standards Agency (FSA), calling on the industry to continue efforts to cut the levels in processed foods.
"The industry has already made great strides in reducing the amount of salt in a wide range of processed foods," said Martin Paterson, deputy director general of the UK's food industry body, the Food and Drink Federation.
But he added that the FDF would continue to work with the FSA and the Department of Health to help achieve sodium reductions in consumer diets.
And Unilever UK Chair Gavin Neath said the Anglo-Dutch giant was 'fully supportive of the FSA's initiative on salt', confirming it had been working over the past 18 months o reduce salt levels right 'across our product range'.
FSA chair Sir John Krebs pushed for greater change: "The food industry is about two-thirds of the way to reaching our target of a 1g reduction in processed foods by the end of 2005. However, to reach the ambitious target of 6g per day by 2010 will require further action by both consumers and industry if we are to reduce the human and health costs of eating too much salt," commented FSA.
Eating too much salt is associated with an increased risk in developing high blood pressure, itself a cause or contributing factor in 170,000 deaths a year in England alone.
"Studies show that reducing salt in the diet can lower blood pressure within four weeks which helps protect the individual and reduces the cost to the National Health Service," the FSA said in a statement today, pitching the overall cost to the NHS of prescriptions for reducing high blood pressure at around £840 million, nearly 15 per cent of the total annual cost of all primary care drugs.
According to the FSA, approximately 75 per cent of salt consumed is from processed foods, 10-15 per cent is added by consumers and 10-15 per cent is naturally present in food.
Health and consumer groups welcomed the news. Peter Hollins, director general of the British Heart Foundation said: "We are delighted to support the FSA's campaign which highlights the dangers of eating too much salt."
"We are glad that the FSA recognises that an awareness campaign, on its own, cannot change diets. Their emphasis on working with the industry to reduce the salt content of processed foods is vital, particularly now that more hectic lifestyles mean a growing reliance on convenience and other fast food," added Deirdre Hutton, chair of the UK's National Consumer Council.