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UK: Industry efforts to cut salt content appear wasted on consumers

Despite the “considerable efforts” of industry to reduce salt content in food products, a new UK study suggests it is having zero impact on people’s salt intake. The Food Standards Agency in Scotland (FSAS) has published research indicating that there has been no significant change in the amount of salt consumed by people in Scotland since 2006.

People in Scotland are eating nearly 9g per day on average, which is 50% higher than the recommended 6g per day. Eating too much salt is a significant risk factor in developing high blood pressure. High blood pressure can significantly increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.

The results of this survey are similar to a previous survey carried out in Scotland in 2006, which suggests no significant change to salt intakes. Results are also similar to the last UK survey in 2008.

Seventy-five per cent of the salt eaten is already in every day foods such as bread, meat products and cereals, and convenience foods like pizza, ready meals, savoury snacks and cakes and pastries, so work carried out by the food industry to reformulate their products to reduce the salt content is very important, says a FSAS report.

In 2006 the Food Standards Agency introduced voluntary salt reductions for industry across 85 categories of food, for achievement by 2010. After consultation with the food industry, the FSA set more challenging targets for 2012. The revised targets reflect the progress made by industry and were set at levels intended to make a further real impact on consumers’ intakes.

Bread is a major source of salt in the diet and to assist craft bakers to reduce the salt content of bread, the FSA, in collaboration with stakeholders have produced a new online calculator to help bakers to reduce the amount of salt in bread (see link below).

To date, the food industry in Scotland has made real efforts to reduce the salt levels in many products. For example:

  • Macphie of Glenbervie use 100 tonnes per year less salt which equates to an 18% reduction
  • Baxters have reduced the average salt content of their soup by approximately 50% since 2001, equating to 190 tonnes of salt per year
  • Nairns have made a 56% reduction in the salt content of their oatcakes since 2003

The Scottish Government is also committed to improving the Scottish diet through product reformulation and is collaborating with key partners in Scotland, including the FSA, to support industry to reduce salt, fat and sugar in their products. This includes grant funding for the Scottish Food and Drink Federation (SFDF) to engage an Industry Technical Manager to provide support to reformulate products. In addition, Scottish Enterprise is funding a Food and Health Innovation Service for Scotland that will provide advice to companies on how to reduce salt, fat and sugar.

Given the considerable efforts by industry to reduce the salt content of manufactured food products for home consumption, it is also necessary to address the salt content of foods eaten outside the home.

Consumers could also help lower their salt intakes towards the recommended population average of 6g a day by checking labels, using reduced salt products and adding less salt to their food.

Charles Milne, Director, Food Standards Agency said: ‘We are disappointed that salt intakes have remained static, but will continue our efforts to help people reduce the amount of salt in their diets. FSA in Scotland are committed to salt reduction as part of their strategic plan and we will work in partnership with the Scottish Government and the food industry to drive the necessary changes required to help reduce salt intakes.’

The science behind the story

The study involved taking a 24-hour urine collection from participants in a sub-sample of the Scottish Health Survey. The samples were obtained from 941 adults aged 19-64 years, covering all geographical areas across Scotland, and reflecting the population’s gender balance and difference levels of income.

A sample of urine collected over 24 hours is the ‘gold standard’ method for measuring salt intake. This is because salt intake can’t be measured precisely either by taking blood samples or by estimating the amount eaten from a food diary. Food diaries are not accurate enough because the salt content of individual foods can be quite variable and when salt is added at the cooking stage and at the table you can’t work out how much has been consumed.

Salt is the major source of sodium in the diet, and the key evidence for the association with blood pressure relates to sodium. Therefore, we measure sodium in the urine. The body normally keeps sodium levels steady in the blood and so the sodium excreted in urine reflects the sodium intake from the diet.

Source: Foods Standards Authority

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