Salt - the secret ingredient in the obesity epidemic and food industry profits

25 March 2004

Young, vulnerable children are being targeted by the food industry with very highly salted, calorie-dense foods. WHY?

Studies have shown that very highly salted products suppress the salt taste receptors so that young children demand foods with a high salt content. Indeed, many would claim that children become habituated or addicted to these foods, which are often at or just below the salt concentration of seawater.

Experiments in humans have shown that it takes at least one month for the salt taste receptors to readjust to lower salt concentrations so it is extremely difficult to get children to stop eating these highly salted processed foods (1) When they taste good, fresh, home-cooked food, they reject it as being too bland. Once habituated to highly salted processed foods, children and young people are likely to continue buying and eating them for the rest of their lives.

The big advantage to the food industry is that these types of food, e.g. Dairylea Lunchables and Cheese Strings etc, are potentially very profitable. The ingredients are low-cost and therefore the profits are likely to be much larger than if good quality foods were used. These cheap, salty foods are nearly always high in fat and sugar and are therefore very calorie dense (i.e. very high in calories for very little weight). For example, one Cheese String ‘Attack a snack’ has the same calories as 7 apples. (2)

The high salt content has another major secret advantage to the food industry - salt intake is the main drive to thirst. When children consume these very salty foods they immediately become thirsty and many will be given soft drinks. These drinks are a huge hidden source of calories – one can of fizzy drink contains seven teaspoons of sugar – a total of 142 calories (see notes). If you saw an adult adding seven teaspoons of sugar to tea or coffee, you might raise your eyebrows, but no-one thinks twice about giving a can of cola to a child.
Carefully controlled studies of changing salt intake show that if salt intake were reduced by half, soft drink consumption in the UK would fall by approximately 3 billion drinks a year (3). This would not be in the interests of soft drink manufacturers.

Therefore high salt foods underlie the obesity epidemic, but also, in the amounts now consumed by children and adults, salt is a long term toxin that slowly increases blood pressure as we age. For example at 20 yrs of age 20% of the population has raised blood pressure, at 50 yrs 50% of the population has raised blood pressure and at 80 yrs the number with raised blood pressure rises to 80%(4). Raised blood pressure is the major cause of strokes and heart attacks - over 50% of the UK population suffers or dies from a stroke or heart attack.
The high saturated fat content in these products will also increase blood cholesterol levels, another major cause of heart attacks and strokes. Furthermore, obesity and consequent diabetes will make the risk even greater. The food industry must act more responsibly and stop marketing these hidden dangerous ingredients to vulnerable children for purely commercial reasons at the expense of their future health.

Notes to Editors

  • The Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) is a group of medical specialists who are the UK’s leading experts on the effects of salt on health. Over the last eight years, CASH has been working to reduce the amount of salt in the UK diet. Excess salt in our diet is the major cause of high blood pressure, which leads to strokes, heart attacks and heart failure- the UK’s greatest killers. Salt is also related to cancer of the stomach, osteoporosis, kidney disease, asthma and fluid retention.
  • The Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) published guidelines in May 2003 calling for adults to eat no more than 6g of salt per day (current intake is around 10-12g per day), and for children much less- dependent upon age. (
  • Around 80% of our salt intake now comes from salt hidden in food, e.g. processed food, canteen meals, fast food and restaurant food.
    • Already over 30% of the adult population in the UK has high blood pressure, and the proportion rapidly increases with age, i.e. 50% at 50 years, 70% at 70 years. Blood pressure is the major cause of strokes, heart failure and heart attacks.
  • For healthy eating, to prevent strokes, heart attacks and cancer for both children and adults the message is clear:

            - Reduce salt intake in adults to less than 6 grams per day and much smaller amounts in children, depending on age.
            - Eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, at least five portions a day.
            - Eat less fat, particularly saturated fat.
            - Eat less sugar

(1) Bertino M, Beauchamp GK, Engelman K. Long term reduction in dietary sodium alters the taste of salt. Am J Clin Nutr. 1982;36:1134-1144.