Is the stubbornness of some sections of the food industry costing us thousands of lives?

Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) is pleased that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has set lower salt targets for the food industry to reach by 2012, with the objective of lowering daily salt intakes in the UK to 6g or less in adults.  Without significant reductions in the amount of salt that industry adds to our food, we stand no chance of achieving the goal of an average adult salt intake of 6g a day or less.

Profits before health?

We should not lose sight of the reason why the food industry is being asked to reduce our salt intake – salt puts up our blood pressure, which in turn increases our risk of stroke or heart disease.  For every 1g of salt removed from our average daily intake, almost 7,000 lives could be saved per year and a further 7,000 non-fatal heart attacks and strokes could be prevented.  At the moment, the UK is leading the world in salt reduction and the fact that our average salt intake has dropped to 8.6g per day means that many thousands of lives are already being saved.

But, given the huge potential public health gains to be had from reducing salt, Action on Salt is disappointed that some sections of the food industry have not agreed to the lower targets suggested by the FSA or the even lower targets suggested.  In many cases, supermarkets are already producing foods with salt levels around the 2012 targets, but some other food manufacturers are stubbornly refusing to bring their salt levels down.

“The food categories we are most concerned about are bread, ham and bacon,” says Professor Graham MacGregor, Chairman of CASH and Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine.  “Bread accounts for a fifth (20%) of all the salt we eat in the UK, and ham and bacon 8%, so it is vital that the salt content of these foods is reduced if we are to save the maximum number of lives.  It’s sad to see that some bakers and ham and bacon producers are not prepared to lower the salt content of their products and we can only speculate that this is for commercial reasons. Is it really worth thousands of lives?”

CASH proposed that the 2012 target for bread be set at 0.75g salt per 100g which, as bread contributes a fifth of our salt intake, would have resulted in a reduction of over half a gram a day in the country’s salt intake, compared with the 2010 target of 1.1g of salt per 100g.  The 2012 target that went out to the industry for consultation was 0.93g per 100g, which would have resulted in a reduction of 0.24g per day in our average salt intake.

But the figure that the bakers have said they will accept is 1.0g per 100g.  This will result in a reduction of just 0.12g per day in the nation’s average salt intake.

For every 1g reduction in the nation’s salt intake we will save 7,000 lives. The difference between what CASH asked for and the final figure agreed by industry equates to a potential average reduction of 0.4g per day – which may not seem a large figure, but on a population level it equates to 2,800 extra lives that could have been saved each year.  In other words, the equivalent of 8 jumbo jets crashing and killing all on board every year when they could have been saved.

The most galling thing of all is that some standard supermarket own-label breads are today already at the 0.75g per 100g target we proposed.  If Sainsbury’s can make and sell bread with 0.7g of salt per 100g (0.30g sodium), why can’t brands such as Hovis, Warburton’s and Kingsmill?

If people want to reduce their chances of having a stroke or heart attack, they need to be very careful about which food products they buy, there are such huge differences in the salt content of foods that simply checking the labels and switching brands or changing to supermarket own-label products can dramatically lower the salt content of some of your favourite foods. Generally, the cheaper own-label supermarket products are lower in salt than the brand names.  For example, why would any parent feed their children Kingsmill’s Great Everyday Soft White loaf with 1.18g of salt per 100g, when Sainsbury’s own brand white bread has 0.7g of salt per 100g and already hits the 2012 target proposed?  Eating lower salt foods will improve your health, and your bank balance!”

Most shoppers do not read food labels. Generally, the advice to the public is that if they want to lower their salt intake, they should choose supermarket own label products, rather than premium branded products, as they tend to contain less salt.  UK supermarkets are leading the world in reducing salt intakes. Surely premium branded products can do the same?