Thousands of people died preventably after the government stopped asking the food industry to reduce the amount of salt it puts in its products, a study has found.
Salt is a leading cause of high blood pressure, leading to tens of thousands of people suffering or dying from heart attacks and strokes each year.
The average amount of salt consumed in England fell by almost 20% after the Food Standards Agency (FSA) launched a program in 2006 under which food manufacturers reduced the salt content of many types of products. processed and prepared foods.
The coalition government abandoned this interventionist approach in 2011. Its “public health accountability deal” allowed food producers to once again set their own salt levels. The deal has been heavily criticized by public health experts because it relies on companies’ voluntary efforts to create healthier products rather than the FSA’s stricter regulatory tactics.
After this change, average consumption increased again, from 7.58 g per day in 2014 to 8.39 g per day in 2018, according to the study published in the Journal of Hypertension. Since then, it has “stalled”, the authors noted from their analysis of published health figures. Experts recommend that people consume no more than 6g per day to stay healthy.
The abandonment of salt reduction targets also led to a stabilization of population-wide blood pressure levels as well as the rate of deaths from heart attacks and strokes, both of which had declined after that the foods were less salty, according to the results.
A team of researchers led by Dr Jing Song from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) calculated that if the salt reduction campaign had continued, average consumption would have fallen by 1.45g per additional day between 2014 and 2018. “This would have prevented more than 38,000 deaths from stroke and heart disease over a four-year period alone, of which 24,000 would have been premature,” they said.
The research was co-authored by Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular disease at QMUL and chair of campaign group Action on Salt. He said: “It is now up to the Government to put in place a coherent strategy where the food industry is given instructions on what to do, rather than the food industry telling the Government what to do. »
Other co-authors also have roles within Action on Salt, as well as academic roles at QMUL. The study highlights “how little progress has been made in recent years to reduce the salt content of our foods”, said the British Heart Foundation.
John Maingay, the association’s director of policy and influence, urged ministers to impose lower salt levels in food to reduce the population’s dangerously high consumption.
He said: “Most of us eat too much salt, putting us at risk of developing high blood pressure and then heart disease. Helping the nation reduce its salt intake would prevent more heart attacks and strokes, easing pressure on the NHS, and the government and the food industry have a vital role to play in this.
“Today’s results should convince policymakers to provide more incentives for food manufacturers to reduce the salt content of their products and to begin seriously considering mandatory measures to follow the current voluntary program.”
The Department of Health and Social Care has been contacted for comment.