Thousands of people have died avoidably after the government stopped telling the food industry to cut how much salt it puts into its products, research has found.
Salt is a significant cause of high blood pressure, which leads to tens of thousand of people a year suffering or dying from a heart attack or stroke.
The average amount of salt that people in England consumed fell by almost 20% after the Food Standards Agency (FSA) initiated a programme in 2006 in which food manufacturers reduced the salt content of scores of different types of processed and prepared foods.
The coalition government abandoned that interventionist approach in 2011. Its “public health responsibility deal” instead let food producers once again set their own salt levels. The deal was heavily criticised by public health experts for relying on voluntary efforts by firms to create healthier products rather than the FSA’s tougher regulatory tactics.
After the change average intake rose again, from 7.58g a day in 2014 to 8.39g a day in 2018, according to the study, which has been published in the Journal of Hypertension. It has “stalled” since, the authors found from their analysis of published health figures. Experts recommend that people should consume no more than 6g a day to maintain good health.
Abandoning salt reduction targets also led to a levelling-off of both population-wide blood pressure levels and also the rate of deaths from heart attacks and strokes, both of which had fallen after foodstuffs become less salt, the findings say.
A team of researchers led by Dr Jing Song from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) calculated that if the salt reduction drive had continued, average intake would have fallen by a further 1.45g a day between 2014 and 2018. “This would have prevented over 38,000 deaths from strokes and heart disease in just a four-year period, of which 24,000 would have been premature,” they said.
The research was co-authored by Graham MacGregor, a professor of cardiovascular disease at QMUL who is also the chair of the campaign group Action on Salt. He said: “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.”
Other co-authors also have roles with Action on Salt too, as well as academic roles at QMUL. The study underlines “how little progress there has been in recent years to reduce the salt in our food”, the British Heart Foundation said.
John Maingay, the charity’s director of policy and influencing, urged ministers to mandate lower levels of salt in foodstuffs in order to reduce the population’s dangerously high intake.
He said: “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 Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.