Mhairi Brown RNutr, Action on Salt, discusses why Britain needs to eat less salt and why a salt reduction programme is absolutely necessary

Is Britain eating too much salt?

Our current salt intake (8.4g per day, 40% higher than the recommended limit of 6g/day) raises blood pressure, which in turn is the major risk factor for cardiovascular disease – the cause of one in four deaths in the UK.

Eating too much salt is also linked to numerous health issues, including:

  • Kidney disease
  • Osteoporosis
  • Stomach cancer

In 2017 alone, excess salt intake was linked to 3 million deaths globally.

People eat more salt than they realise

Many people are eating much more salt than they realise, as around 80% of the salt we eat has already been added by the food industry to everyday foods such as bread, breakfast cereals, processed meats and ready meals, in addition to food from restaurants and fast-food outlets, which are sold in larger portions and contain much more salt than meals we would cook for ourselves.

‘Much of our food is coming ‘ready salted’ whether we want it to be or not’

The choice is not currently in the hands of the British public: much of our food is coming ‘ready salted’ whether we want it to be or not.

In the early 2000s, the UK took decisive action and implemented a voluntary salt reduction programme, which set novel, incremental salt targets for the food industry to work towards gradually reducing salt levels across more than 80 food categories.

By 2011, salt levels in most products had fallen by 20-40%, and consumers were none the wiser.

This impressive action was accompanied by a fall in population salt intake, average population blood pressure and deaths from cardiovascular disease.

The UK’s programme became the blueprint globally; to date, more than 50 countries have salt targets similar to the UK’s.

Anonymous man is preparing a meal. He is adding salt to a pan with his fingers.
Image: © miniseries | iStock

The UK salt reduction programme has come to a standstill

However, despite initial success, in recent years, the UK salt reduction programme has made little progress.

A 2020 report found that many salt targets – due to be met by 2017 – had still not been met.

A new set of salt targets were set in 2020 to be met by 2024, but there is no guarantee that these will see progress, especially as a key monitoring report that was scheduled for release in 2022 has still not been published by the Government.

It’s a sad fact that the days of impactful and voluntary initiatives are behind us.

Responsible food companies that were willing to comply with the salt reduction programme have already done so; without an incentive, it’s unlikely that the rest of the food industry is waiting and ready to jump on board.

Can the Soft Drinks Industry Levy model help the salt reduction initiatives?

Luckily, we already have a model to look to, which provides an incentive for action: the Soft Drinks Industry Levy.

The SDIL is a brilliant example of ambitious and impactful policymaking. A world-leading and novel levy, it is the first tax applied to sugary soft drinks that were designed to drive reformulation.

Its tiered structure has given a clear incentive for soft drinks manufacturers to reformulate their products and avoid paying additional taxes:

  • Drinks with more than 8g of sugar per 100ml pay a higher rate of tax
  • Drinks with 5-8g/100ml pay a lower rate of tax
  • Drinks with less than 5g/100ml pay no tax

Between 2015 and 2020, the SDIL led to a 46% reduction in average total sugar content (sales-weighted) in drinks subject to the levy.

Even Pepsi has decided to reduce its sugar content

Even Pepsi, long thought to be one of the multinational companies that would never reduce sugar levels in their drinks, announced earlier this year that they had done just that.

Their once ‘full sugar’ Pepsi drink will soon be on the market with 4.55g of sugar per 100ml – 57% less sugar.

An additional levy could be expected to similarly drive reformulation to reduce excess salt while raising funds for various activities, such as research and innovation to support British-owned food and drink companies or supporting families to access healthier food.

Female hand pouring cola drink from tin to glass
Image: © tongpatong | iStock

Legislation to mandate the targets is also an option, and countries such as South Africa and Argentina have led the way here.

They’ve had legislation in place for a few years to lower levels of excess salt added to products such as bread, processed meat and breakfast cereals.

Salt intake in South Africa has fallen by around 1g per day, with higher reductions in black adults and those in lower socioeconomic groups.

Legislation, while necessary, takes time

In the short term, a levy could be implemented relatively quickly if the Chancellor and the Treasury can lead the way and support the Department of Health and Social Care’s health ambitions.

The levy could raise necessary revenue while also lowering salt levels in food and, therefore, population salt intake.

Just a 1g per day reduction in the level of salt we eat could prevent more than 4,000 unnecessary deaths and save the economy £1.5 billion in costs.

‘Do nothing’ has been the default on salt reduction for many years.

Here’s hoping that the Government will use these crucial months in the run-up to the next general election to show us they are serious about protecting our health.


This piece was written and provided by Mhairi Brown RNutr, Policy and Public Affairs Lead, Action on Salt


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