Salt reduction remains a public health priority for the UK, says Public Health England (PHE), the body that advises the UK government on public health policy.
In 2014, Public Health England set specific salt reduction targets for the 28 broad product categories (and 76 sub-categories) that contribute most to people’s salt intakes. These targets were supposed to be achieved by December 2017.
A PHE progress report (which can be read in full here) was published today. It concludes: “Just over half (52%) of all the average salt reduction targets set were met by 2017. Retailers made more progress than manufacturers towards achieving average targets, meeting 73% of these compared with manufacturers meeting 37%. Performance of individual food categories varied considerably.”
Public Health England set salt reduction targets for 28 groups: meat products, bread, breakfast cereals, cheese, butter, fat spreads, baked beans, ready meals, soups, pizzas, crisps, cakes, sandwiches, table sauces, cook-in sauces, biscuits, pasta, rice, other cereals, puddings, quiche, scotch eggs, canned fish, canned vegetables, meat alternatives, processed potatoes, beverages and stocks and gravies.
Nine product categories met their targets (breakfast cereals; fat spreads; baked beans; pizzas; cakes, pastries, fruit pies and other pastry-based desserts; pasta; quiche; processed potato products; stocks and gravies), and at least 75% of products in these categories had salt levels at or below maximum targets with the exception of baked beans.
However, meat products did not meet any average targets, and had 43% of products with salt levels above the maximum target.
'Clear progress' or 'a national tragedy'?
Nevertheless, the PHE struck an overall positive tone.
“There has been clear progress in reducing the salt content of foods since salt targets were first set in 2006. For example, the average salt content of bread reduced by about 20% from 2001 to 2011, with reductions of more than 40% seen in other types of products. Breakfast cereals are meeting 2017 targets which were set more than 25% lower compared with 2006 when they were first set.”
According to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, cereal and cereal products are the biggest contributing category of foods to average daily sodium intake at 29.5% followed by meat and meat products at 27.3%.
PHE used food and drink purchase data provided by Kantar Worldpanel for the year ending September 2017. Nutrition information given by businesses or collected from company websites and menus was used for the out of home sector analyses.
Salt intake in the UK has been experiencing a downward trend over the past decade, albeit slowly, and levels are still above what is recommended.
In 2014, the average salt intake for adults was 8 g per day while in 2011 it was 8.5 g and 8.8 g in 2005/06.
“Since the salt reduction programme was launched, overall salt intake has fallen by 11% although it remains higher than the recommended 6 g per day,” says PHE.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that adults consume less than 5 g (just under a teaspoon) of salt per day.
However, professor Graham MacGregor, chair of Action on Salt called the results so far “a national tragedy”.
“This report confirms what we know already – that voluntary targets need comprehensive monitoring and guidance but this has been completely lacking from PHE,” he said.
“As a result, thousands of unnecessary strokes and heart attacks have occurred and billions of pounds wasted by the NHS and tragically more than 4000 premature deaths per year have occurred.”
FDF: Our members have led the way but more is to be done
Kate Halliwell, head of UK diet and health policy at trade association, the Food and Drink Federation, focussed on the progress that manufacturers have achieved.
“[…] Almost three quarters of foods fall below the maximum salt targets,” she said.
“FDF members have led the way in reducing salt in food. Voluntary action helped to reduce adult intakes by 11% between 2005/6 and 2014. And during the lifetime of the latest salt targets (2012 to 2017) our members have reduced salt by a further 11.4%, continuing to build on more than 15 years of steady reformulation work. This has been done without compromising on taste, quality or safety.
“Most ingredients in food perform a wide range of functions, and go well beyond adding flavour, such as providing texture or shelf-life. This means taking anything out of food (through reformulation), be it salt, sugar or calories, is not straightforward. Nevertheless, we recognise there is more to be done and manufacturers remain committed to the government’s various reformulation programmes."