In November, the head of Public Health England, Duncan Selbie, made calls to persuade the government to introduce mandatory labelling changes to make the salt content of retail foods much clearer to consumers, owing to the health issues that arise from excessive salt intake. And in December, his concerns appear to have been validated by a Public Health England report that suggests that not all salt reduction targets have been met. Why is salt such a hot topic, and what can be done about it? Let’s take a look at the stories in more detail.
Daily salt intakes can vary for a number of reasons including age, medical conditions and weight. High salt diets can be a cause of high blood pressure which can lead to far worse conditions if left untreated.
The recommended daily intake of salt for adults is less than 6g or equivalent to one teaspoon.
For children it depend on their age, a 1-3 year old should not exceed more than 2g, a 4-6 year old should not exceed more than 5g per day. Babies should have less than 1g per day as their kidneys have not fully developed meaning they cannot process salt and excessive amounts could damage their health.
The issue is centered around the fact that high salt intake is proven to be a significant contributing factor of high blood pressure. Excessive salt causes the body to retain more water, which is what drives this higher blood pressure. This has a significant knock on effect that raises the chance of all manner of other health problems.
Heart attacks are a major killer, and high blood pressure is one of the biggest causes. Strokes, kidney problems and even dementia are all also possible outcomes of living with high blood pressure. A further issue is that salt can also reduce the effectiveness of diuretics and other medication designed to lower blood pressure.
Action on Salt, a pressure group focused on making people aware of, and ultimately reducing, the risks of excessive salt intake, claim that more than 4000 lives in the UK are claimed each year as a result of high salt consumption. Every 1g of reduction in the average salt intake per person in the country would save more than 7000 lives, as well as saving the NHS more than £1.5bn.
Much of this problem is down to the fact that consumers don’t realise how much salt they are consuming, with processed foods such as sausages, burgers and ready meals in particular containing considerable amounts of sodium.
Food manufacturers themselves are being branded as part of the problem, with Selbie also saying: “I’m concerned about food companies’ slow progress in meeting targets for salt reduction. They’ve not made the progress that was hoped for.” In December, PHE released a report that shows only 52% of salt reduction targets were met in 2017, with chips, burgers and sauce-based products the main culprits.
The food and drink industry has responded, saying that overall salt levels have been reduced by more than 11%, but health professionals and campaign groups still believe that more needs to be done.
Selbie has suggested that a system similar to the traffic light indication labelling that you’ll find in many supermarkets should be used. However, he asserts that the threat is so great that salt needs to be highlighted on its own. The idea is that this would make consumers far more aware of how much salt is in the products they’re buying, and drive them to make more informed choices. It’s very likely that this would also have a strong effect on the product manufacturers themselves - forcing them to show how much salt is in their products is also likely to persuade them to cut their use of salt too.
It remains to be seen whether the government will introduce any further legislation on food labelling, but some positivity should be taken in the fact that salt intake levels, as well as salt levels in packaged food, are on a downward trend, even if all targets haven’t been met. More training for the food industry may well encourage producers to cut down on the salt they put into their foods, but eventually legislation may have to lead.
For more information on food labelling, and what is required under law, consider taking one of the Virtual College food hygiene courses. These courses cover all of the basics, including the information that must be present on packaging.
A lot of processed foods display the traffic lighting system mentioned in this article which demonstrates Red (high), Amber (medium) and Green (low) levels of fat, sugar and salt in these products. This is not a mandatory system, however many retailers own brand labels use such a system and several major brands have started to implement them too.
Indeed some brands like Soupologie, have made displaying a totally green traffic lighting for all their products a key brand feature.
The important thing to remember is that when you’re shopping or planning your food intake to focus on eating far more green and amber products than red and when cooking you own food make sure to taste all your food before adding extra salt.
Other seasonings such as herbs and spices can be used to add flavour which can reduce the need for sodium to be added. It is often harder when eating out to know how much salt, fat or sugar your meals contain, as restaurants often don’t publish the nutritional value in their products.
This is OK if you only eat out occasionally, but if eating out makes up a larger part of your diet, you need to be aware and factor this into where you’re planning to eat out and what you plan to eat.
Ideally when you do have the chance to prepare your own food, add minimal amounts of salt to it. As is always the case, the best way to maintain a healthy diet is to eat as wide a variety of foods as you can and to make your diet up of as many unprocessed foods as you can.”