The average person in the UK is thought to eat around 8.1g salt a day. This value has reduced by 15% over the last decade, primarily due to product reformulation, whereby the food industry have gradually reduced the amount of salt added to their food. But we are still eating a third more than the maximum recommended intake of 6g a day, putting us all at increased risk of suffering later on in life.
So what’s the problem? Why is salt so bad?
Where is all our salt coming from?
People often assume most of their salt intake comes from salt added themselves during cooking or at the table. Unfortunately this is not the case. Up to 75% of the salt we consume is found in processed food and food eaten out of the home. This will come as a surprise to most people, as so many of us aren’t aware of how much we actually eat. According to the latest figures from the National Diet & Nutrition Survey (NDNS) the biggest contributors of salt in the diet are bread, cheese and meat products like bacon. But a large proportion of our salt intake also comes from foods that don’t necessarily taste salty, e.g. vegetable and potato products, contributing to 8% of our daily salt intake. This includes things like frozen chips, pre-prepared vegetables e.g. mashed potato, and tinned produce.
Therefore commitment from the food industry, by all the retailers, manufacturers and caterers both large and small is crucial if we are to reduce the salt intake of the UK population further.
So what’s being done about it?
Salt reduction was made a public health priority in the early 2000’s by the Food Standards Agency (FSA). At the time, the FSA, an independent body, was completely responsible for nutrition, and together with Action on Salt, they laid out a set of achievable targets on over 80 food categories for the food industry to voluntarily adhere to. This was in line with public awareness campaigns such as ‘Sid the Slug’ ‘Check the Label’ and ‘Is Your Food Full of it?’. All members of the food industry were encouraged to agree to the salt targets and work towards them within an acceptable timeframe. New and lower targets were then set a couple of years later, with a deadline of 2012 in which to achieve them. This approach of resetting targets every 2 years was executed so as to achieve the UK recommendation of 6g a day by 2015.
In 2011 under the new coalition government responsibility was moved away from the FSA and given to the Department of Health, whereby they set up the Public Health Responsibility Deal. In 2014, the Deparment of Health issued new salt targets, to be achieved by the end of 2017. No monitoring of the food industry took place within this time and in 2016 The Responsibility Deal ceased to exist, with responsibility for salt reduction falling onto Public Health England.
Salt reduction has been a real success here in the UK, with many food products now 20-40% lower in salt than they were 10 years ago. For too long however, the out of home sector were wrongly left out of the salt reduction programme, and as a result they are now lagging behind the rest of the food industry. The importance of salt reduction has not yet reached the catering industry, with many still believing salt to be key in flavour and seasoning. This however is wrong, with an abundance of research confirming the health implications of excess salt in the diet. With one in every six meals consumed out of the home it is therefore vital that the catering sector fall in line with rest of the industry, and start reducing salt in their meals. In an attempt to engage with the catering sector, the Department of Health set Out of Home Maximum per Serve salt targets, for 10 of the most popular dishes sold in UK restaurants, and an additional target for children’s meals.
Nevertheless, the UK is leading the way in salt reduction, with many countries around the world implementing a similar strategy. Some countries have even made salt targets part of legislation. The general consensus from industry is that they are in favour of legislation, as they feel it would create a level playing field, as opposed to the voluntary method which is somewhat flawed and lacks pressure or adequate monitoring. Whilst this may be true, it's vital we all work with what we have, and push to make the voluntary targets as successful as possible.