Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) said canned tomato soup, cheddar cheese and chilled ready meals are among the worst offenders.
The increase in salt levels is seen as a major setback to the progress made prior to 2010 when the salt reduction program was under the auspices of the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
Following 2010 the UK coalition government transferred responsibility for nutrition from the FSA to the Department of Health which, in turn, handed the food industry the task of policing itself under an agreement called The Responsibility Deal.
Professor Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chairman of CASH, said: ”Unsurprisingly this (the Responsibility Deal) has failed and has resulted in many thousands of unnecessary deaths from strokes and heart disease.”
CASH is calling for the UK government to allow an independent agency to set regulated targets for salt, saturated fat and sugar, and a forceful, transparent monitoring system.
The saltiest culprits
Nearly half (47%) of the soups surveyed contained the same amount of salt (or more) per serving than two slices of Domino’s Cheese & Tomato Pizza. The saltiest soup culprit was Baxters’ Vegetarian Italian Tomato & Basil with 3.5 g salt per 400 g serving which contained more salt than a McDonald’s Big Mac and large fries.
CASH said it reviewed the salt content of tinned tomato soups at regular intervals between 2007 and 2016, and found that, despite seeing a successful reduction in salt under the FSA with an average 27% reduction between 2007 and 2010, progress has now lapsed. Surprisingly, the salt content in 55% of the products contain the same amount of salt or more now than they did in 2010.
Cheddar - the UK’s favourite cheese contained very high levels of salt (99% would carry a red warning label on front of pack). The majority (95%) of cheese products surveyed in 2016 were found to contain more salt per serving than a packet of ready salted crisps.
CASH said although all of the meals surveyed in 2016 met the Department of Health’s maximum salt target for ready meals, over half (52%) still have a red warning label for salt on front of pack, indicating these meals are dangerously high in salt and contribute to as much as a third of an individual’s daily salt intake.
Both Sainsbury’s Basics Cottage Pie 300 g (increased 186% from 0.5 g to 1.43 g per 300 g serving) and The Co-operative Truly Irresistible Cottage Pie 400g (increased 93% from 1.5 g to 2.9 g per 400 g) are among the products with the most disappointing increases.
Sonia Pombo, nutritionist and campaign manager for CASH, said: “The food we eat is now the biggest cause of death and ill health in the UK, owing to the large amounts of salt, saturated fat and sugars added by the food industry.
'The old system isn't working'
“Whilst many food manufacturers initially made a concerted effort to reduce the salt in their products, others are now failing to do so and in turn are putting the nation’s health at risk.”
Pombo told FoodNavigator: “Despite being willing signatories to voluntary targets, food companies are not making salt reduction a priority. Without the necessary pressures, they are letting high salt level products slip through the net.
“Salt is often added to food because it extends the shelf life of fresh food and, in some cases, it makes cheap ingredients taste better.”
She added: “Reducing the levels of salt in food should be a massive priority for the government. Salt is a huge public health concern which causes death and disability. By reducing salt levels in food, we will be reducing blood pressures and death.”
Pombo called for the UK government to allow an independent agency to set regulated targets for salt, saturated fat and sugar.
She said: “If the old system isn’t working under The Responsibility Deal, we need a new plan with mandatory targets.”
Professor Graham MacGregor added: “It’s imperative that responsibility for nutrition be handed back to an independent agency where it is not affected by changes in government, ministers, political lobbying and pressure from the food industry.”