Taking action on salt

Published: 10/03/2022

As part of our #FoodFuture project we’re speaking to experts about how to best achieve more sustainable food systems. We spoke to Sonia Pombo, campaign manager at Action on Salt, to find out how we can reduce salt in our diets. Sonia manages the salt reduction campaigns at Action on Salt, a UK charity concerned with salt and its effects on health.

Q – What is salt?

Salt, otherwise known as sodium chloride, is the biggest source of sodium in our diets and it is this sodium which is linked to raised blood pressure.

Salt is commonly used as a food ingredient and flavour enhancer but has other properties in food, which can help increase shelf life and inhibit the growth of certain microorganisms, allowing foods to be safer to eat. It was once a vital commodity before the days of refrigeration, which meant people could preserve their foods for longer and prevent them from spoiling.

Now with easy access to food and appropriate forms of refrigeration at our disposal, there is no longer a strong requirement of salt for these reasons, but it is still added to our food, both at home and by the food industry.

Q – How much salt should we be eating and why? (i.e. what does it do for our bodies?)

Our bodies need a little bit of salt to survive; it’s needed to maintain a proper balance of water and minerals in the body, and is essential for nerve and muscle function. But the amount we actually eat is far more than our bodies require.

The current recommendations in the UK is to eat no more than 6 grams a day for adults, with similar global recommendations set by the World Health Organisation of 5g a day, which is about a level teaspoon. But the vast majority of us are eating much more than this.

Q – Why is overconsumption of salt a bad thing?

Evidence has shown that regularly eating too much salt puts us at increased risk of developing stomach cancer, kidney disease and osteoporosis. It is also most strongly linked to raised blood pressure, which is the main cause of strokes and a major cause of heart attacks and heart failures. These are the most common causes of death and illness in the world, and for the most part are preventable.

Health experts believe that if the average person consumed 5g salt per day, as recommended by the World Health Organisation, this could prevent approximately four million deaths a year worldwide.

Q – Are consumers generally eating too much salt today?

The current average salt intake in the UK is 8.4g a day, which is about 40% more than the maximum recommendations. A similar picture can be seen worldwide, with many countries reporting excessive intakes of salt.

Many people unfortunately do not realise they are eating too much salt. That is because the majority (75%) of the salt in our diet is already in the foods we buy. Everyday foods such as soups, sauces, cheese and meat products, even foods that don’t particularly taste salty like bread, have salt, all of which quickly adds up over the course of a day. Foods don’t have to taste salty to be salty, which is one of the reasons people struggle to reduce their salt intake.

Q – How can reformulation play a role in reducing salt intake?

Food reformulation describes the action of changing the composition of processed food to produce a healthier product, and is a vital component in any salt reduction strategy.

Most salt in the UK diet (~75%) comes from salt added by the food industry to processed supermarket food, or food eaten out of the home. Many people do not realise they are eating too much salt and remain unaware of the effect this has on their blood pressure and health, particularly as raised blood pressure is symptomless.

A government-led reformulation programme is therefore an effective way of tackling excessive intakes. The nutritional composition of food can be gradually improved and benefits the whole population, including those from the most deprived backgrounds, who are twice as likely to be suffer from non-communicable diseases compared with those from the least deprived backgrounds.

Q – Do you know any examples of successful reformulation initiatives that have reduced salt in products?

The UK were one of the first countries to pioneer a successful salt reduction programme, focusing on industry efforts to gradually reduce the amount of salt added to everyday foods. Reductions first started in the early 2000’s and are continuing to this day. Most products in the supermarket have now been reduced by 30-50%, with no reported loss of sales to the food industry. The average salt content of bread, for example, which is the biggest contributor of salt in the UK and most European countries, has been reduced by 20% from 1.23g/100g in 2001 to 0.98g/100g in 2011.

As a result, population salt intakes have gone down from 9.5g/day to 8.4g/day, with corresponding falls in blood pressure and fewer deaths from strokes and heart attacks.

Recent research revealed that by 2050, the UK’s salt reduction programme will have led to nearly 200,000 fewer adults developing heart disease, in addition to £1.64 billion in healthcare cost savings.

We know that, when done well, salt reduction is one of the most successful and cost-effective policies a country could make.