Obfuscation by retailers and confusion among public will undermine public health salt campaign

2 March 2005

Which? has surveyed many UK foods and has found that many foods contain far more salt, sugar and fats than declared on the label. This latest research adds weight to Consensus Action on Salt and Health's call for legislation to force manufacturers to label their products accurately.

Not only does the label now appear to be inaccurate on many foods, the fact that salt is still labelled as 'sodium' is incomprehensible to the vast majority of the population, and many foods still carry no indication of how much salt they contain, meaning that customers cannot tell the true salt content of their foods, even if they want to.

Supermarkets are also using meaningless terms suggesting that salt has been reduced, e.g. "controlled", "balanced", "healthy eating" ranges, etc. These are undefined and unregulated. Many foods in these categories contain large amounts of salt. Is the public is being deliberately deceived?

The Food Standards Agency, backed by the Department of Health and the Government, is currently carrying out a campaign pointing out the dangers of eating too much salt (Sid the Slug). The objective of the campaign is for the public to reduce their salt intake from the current intake of 10-12g per day to 5-6g of salt per day.

"The public are totally confused," said Dr Emma Fluck, Project Co-ordinator for CASH (Consensus Action on Salt and Health). "Firstly, the sodium label is inaccurate, secondly, the label is incomprehensible, thirdly, many foods are labelled with these meaningless terms, suggesting they are low in salt and fourthly, many foods still don't declare their salt content. How on earth can the public limit their salt intake?"

"People have no idea what sodium is, or how it relates to salt. We need to see accurate and clear labelling of all foods where salt has been added, and we need to see it immediately, not a promise that we will see it some time before 2009. What is the point of a salt campaign that has already increased public awareness about the dangers of salt, without clear labelling of the salt content of foods? How is the Government campaign going to reduce salt intake from the 10-12 grams/day currently to the target of 5-6 grams/day by 2009 when such total confusion reigns?"

"In the quantities that we eat it, salt is a chronic long term toxin which gradually raises our blood pressure, which in turn is the major cause of strokes, heart attacks and heart failure," said Professor Graham MacGregor, Chairman of CASH. "A 6g per day reduction in salt intake taking people from 10-12g to less than 6g per day would prevent approximately 70,000 strokes and heart attacks each year in the UK, 35,000 of which are fatal. In contrast to the Sudan1 food dye scare, we have the data to tell us exactly how many people will die as a result of eating too much salt, and yet no-one is rushing to clear the shelves of these harmful products.

"We call upon the Food Standards Agency, Department of Health and Government to force the industry to bring in accurate labelling of all foods where salt has been added, with the amount of salt (not just sodium) added per serving and a visual system to indicate whether the concentration of salt in that particular food is high, medium or low. Without this, the public cannot be expected to reduce their salt intake and prevent all these unnecessary strokes and heart attacks".

Examples of inaccurate labelling
1. Tesco Kids 'sodium controlled' Pizza contains 0.37g of sodium per 100g. The level of sodium in this product was 10 times that which would qualify as a reduced sodium food. (Sunday Times, 27th February 2005)
2. Sainsbury's Roasted Red Pepper Houmous has 0.6g sodium per 100g. Sainsbury's 'Be good to yourself' Roasted Red Pepper Houmous labelled on the front as 'controlled for saturated fat and salt' contains 0.5g of sodium per 100g. Although this is lower than the standard range, 0.5g of sodium/100g is classified as 'a lot' of salt by the FSA. (Product purchased by CASH 28th February 2005)
3. Sainsbury's standard Mushroom and Bacon Tagliatelle contains 0.3g of sodium per 100g. Sainsbury's 'Be good to yourself' Mushroom and Bacon Tagliatelle (labelled on the side of the pack as having 'restricted levels of salt…') has the same amount of sodium per 100g as the standard meal (0.3g of sodium per 100g) (Product purchased by CASH 28th February 2005).
4. Many Sainsbury's sandwiches still do not have their salt content labelled on pack.
Four surveys illustrating consumer confusion about labelling:
a. CASH salt survey in adults. 2003 (www.actiononsalt.org.uk/survey_adults.htm)
b. CASH salt survey in the older population. 2004
c. Food Standards Agency (FSA) consumer attitude survey. 2000 (www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/foodattitudespdf.pdf)
d. National Consumer Council. Bamboozled, baffled and bombarded: Consumers' views on voluntary food labelling. 2003 (www.ncc.org.uk/food/bamboozled.pdf)