Successful salt cuts in Africa puts pressure on Britain: ‘The UK is lagging behind’

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Action on Salt is campaigning for the UK Government to implement mandatory salt reduction targets. GettyImages/clubfoto
Action on Salt is campaigning for the UK Government to implement mandatory salt reduction targets. GettyImages/clubfoto

Related tags Salt reduction Action on Salt

Early evidence suggesting South Africa’s mandatory salt reduction law has been effective in cutting salt from diets is putting pressure on the UK Government to follow suit.

The UK population consumes too much salt. According to campaign group Action for Salt, if consumers were to cut their daily intake from the average 8.1g a day to the recommended 6g a day, it would reduce strokes by 22% and heart attacks by 16%.

Acknowledging that salt reduction offers an important opportunity to improve population health, the UK government has been challenging food manufacturers to reduce salt levels for several years. Voluntary salt reduction targets have been published in 2006, 2009, 2011, 2014, and 2020.

With the most recent salt reduction progress report revealing ‘little improvement’​, Action on Salt has been campaigning for the UK Government to implement law binding targets.

“Consumers do not generally know where the salt comes from in their diet, as around 75% of it is hidden in the foods we buy and eat, not just in crisps and ready meals but in staple foods such as bread, sauces, soups and takeaways,” ​noted the campaign group.

“Therefore it is vital to implement mandatory reformulation policies to lower dietary salt intake in addition to policies targeting consumer behaviour.”

Promising early findings

Backing up Action on Salt’s stance is a newly published study out of South Africa. Findings suggest mandatory salt reduction targets are an effective approach to reducing population salt intakes and improving outcomes of strokes and heart disease.

“These findings show effectiveness of sodium reduction policies at a population level, as we are already seeing how the UK is falling behind, despite a two-decades long voluntary salt reduction programme,” ​noted the campaign group.

South Arica was among the first countries to adopt mandatory regulation in 2016 to lower the salt content in processed foods. The aim was to reduce population salt intake to less than 5g per day.

The study in question (known as the African-PREDICT study), published in the Journal of Human Hypertension​, assessed the effectiveness of this regulation in adults aged 20-30 years over a mean follow-up time of 4.56 years.

Preliminary findings revealed that overall, there was a significant reduction of approximately 1.2g salt per day, including in young adults. The salt reduction was higher in black adults (-2.04g salt per day) and low socio-economic groups (-1.89g salt per day) who were at a high risk of developing a stroke, heart disease and hypertension.

“Our study supports the effectiveness of upstream interventions to lower population salt intake, particularly for vulnerable groups who may typically consume more processed foods,” ​noted the study authors. “It needs to be determined in the legislation has the anticipated population health gains.”

Pressure mounts for UK Gov’t action

These findings, although preliminary, support Action on Salt’s campaign for mandatory salt cuts in the UK.

Salt reduction is one of the most cost-effective strategies to remove unnecessary strokes and heart disease,” ​stressed Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London, and Chairman of Action on Salt.

“Many thousands of lives in South Africa will now be saved from strokes and heart disease because of a simple piece of legislation forcing food manufacturers to put less salt in the food that they produce. It has taken the UK 20 years to see similar salt reductions from a voluntary approach, that South Africa has achieved in just few short years with a regulatory approach.”

While acknowledging that the UK ‘led the world’ in reducing salt initially, MacGregor lamented the country’s current positioning. “Due to government inaction, the country is now lagging behind, meaning many thousands of people are dying and suffering unnecessarily.

The UK government must now stop pretending that the profit-driven food industry will police itself and set new mandatory comprehensive salt reduction targets immediately.”

Source: Journal of Human Hypertension
‘Early evidence for the effectiveness of South Africa’s legislation on salt reduction in foods: the African-PREDICT study’
Published 29 January 2022
Authors: Michél Strauss-Kruger, Edelweiss Wentzel-Viljoen, Lisa J. Ware, Tertia Van Zyl, Karen Charlton, Suria Ellis and Aletta E. Schutte.

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