The Government should consider mandatory measures to reduce the amount of salt in the nation’s diet to help save lives and boost the economy, campaigners have said.
It comes after researchers found the decline of salt consumption in England between 2003 and 2014 has since been rising.
A high-salt diet can lead to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attacks or stroke.
A team from Queen Mary University of London said the average salt intake among adults in England “followed a downward trend” between 2003 and 2014, but has been “interrupted” since, with the “gradual decline” in average blood pressure since 2003 also “coming to a halt” in the last nine years.
They found salt intake had gone from 9.38g per day to 7.58g per day between 2003 and 2014, but had risen to 8.39g per day in 2018.
The team also identified a decline in population blood pressure from 2003 to 2014, which went from 125.3/74.5 mmHg to 122.6/73.3 mmHg.
However it plateaued at 122.0/73.8 mmHg in 2018, along with death rates from stroke and heart disease.
Work to reduce salt intake in the UK was initiated by the Food Standards Agency (FDA) in 2003.
In September 2020, Public Health England published a new target to be met by 2024, covering 84 food groups, up from 76 in 2017.
The report said that while the UK salt reduction programme was “initially successful”, changes “may have played an important role in the concomitant changes in blood pressure and cardiovascular disease mortality”.
It added: “Urgent action is needed to reinvigorate the UK’s once world-leading salt reduction programme.”
Jing Song, of Queen Mary University of London and first author of the paper, which has been published in the Journal of Hypertension, said: “Reducing salt intake has been identified by the World Health Organisation as one of the most cost-effective measures to improve population health.
“As a nation, if we cut one gram of salt from our average daily salt intake, this could save over 6,000 lives every year from strokes and heart disease – all of which are completely avoidable – and save the economy £1.5 billion annually.”
Campaign group Action on Salt is now calling on the Government to “prioritise” salt reduction or face the “detrimental impact on the health and wellbeing of the population, as well as on the economy”.
Graham MacGregor is a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Salt.
He said the analysis “reinforces the urgent need for a robust system” to reduce salt intake.
He added: “It is now up to the Government to set up a coherent strategy where the food industry is instructed what to do, rather than the food industry telling the Government what to do.
“We must get our salt reduction strategy back on track for the benefit of public health, the UK workforce, our overburdened NHS and the economy.”
John Maingay, director of policy and influencing at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said: “This study shows how little progress there has been in recent years to reduce the salt in our food.
“Most of us eat too much salt, and this puts us at risk of developing high blood pressure and then heart disease.
“Helping the nation to cut its salt intake would prevent more heart attacks and strokes, easing pressure on the NHS, and the Government and food industry have a critical role to play in this.
“Today’s findings should convince politicians to give food manufacturers more incentives to reduce the salt content of their products, and start seriously considering mandatory measures to follow the current voluntary programme.”
The NHS recommends adults should have no more than 6g of salt – about one teaspoon a day – which includes that already in food and added during cooking.
A spokesperson for the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said: “Salt reduction by food manufacturers has been ongoing for the last two decades. FDF members have continued to reduce salt in their products and contribute 24% less salt to the average shopping basket than they did eight years ago.
“In comparison to global mandatory targets, the UK voluntary programme has driven salt levels down across a broader range of categories.
“We believe the best way forward is to support companies as they continue to develop healthier recipes – the Scottish Government’s Reformulation for Health programme is a great example of how this can be achieved.”
The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.