Lead author of the study, Dr Lauren Bandy has suggested mandatory reporting of salt sales by manufacturers might be needed to improve transparency and she highlighted that progress to reduce salt has “stalled.”
To investigate the levels researchers from the University of Oxford assessed whether the amount of salt in a range of different foods sold in supermarkets had changed between 2015 and 2020. The study was based on the nine grocery food categories that contribute the most to adults’ salt intake in the UK. The analysis included approximately 8,000-9,500 food products from 400 different brands
The nine categories of food products included in the analysis were: bread; breakfast cereals; butter and spreads; cheese; meat, seafood and alternatives; processed beans, potatoes and vegetables; ready meals, soup and pizza; sauces and condiments; and savoury snacks.
The news of the research follows concerns earlier this year that UK food companies were being targeted by campaigners who want the Government to introduce mandatory target on salt levels in food. In aletter to the Government over 236 dieticians, nutritionists, pharmacists, nurses and GPs called for comprehensive and mandatory targets.
The findings from this latest report found that while the average salt content of all food products in the study fell by 5%, from 1.04g per 100g in 2015, to 0.99g per 100g in 2020, this was not “statistically significant.”
The biggest reductions in salt were seen in breakfast cereals (-16%) and processed beans, potatoes and vegetables (-11%), but there was a small reduction in bread (-2%) and no reduction in ready meals (+1%).
The categories with the highest salt content in 2020 were savoury snacks (1.6g per 100g on average) and cheese (1.6g per 100g), the research found.
The total volume of salt sold from all food products decreased from 2.41g per person per day in 2015, to 2.25g in 2020: a reduction of 0.16g per person (6.7%). Most of the salt sold came from three categories: bread (24%), meat, seafood and alternatives (19%), and cheese (12%), it said.
For certain products (ready meals, pizzas and soups), the research said that the volume of salt sold increased, with any reduction of salt content offset by rising sales, the researchers said.
According to the research team, several reasons may explain why little recent progress has been made to reduce salt in food products. It said that reformulating food products can be technically challenging, especially where salt acts as a preservative; there can be consumer resistance to low salt varieties; and there has been a recent shift in focus by industry and policy makers towards sugar and calorie reduction instead.
Dr Lauren Bandy (Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, Oxford University) said: “Our results demonstrate that overall progress to reduce salt intake has stalled. Voluntary targets alone may be insufficient to achieve the Government’s target of a population salt intake of less than 6g per day and additional policy measures might be needed to achieve further progress. This could include mandatory reporting of salt sales by manufacturers to improve transparency - as has been called for in the National Food Strategy.”
Professor Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and Chairman of Action on Salt (who were not directly involved in the study), said: “Reducing salt is the most cost-effective measure for lowering blood pressure and reducing the number of people suffering and dying from strokes, heart disease and life changing disabilities. The UK was once considered world-leading in our approach to salt reduction, but this paper and many others before it makes it clear that the voluntary approach is no longer fit for purpose.”