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Oh sugar, I forgot the salt

Posted on 22 March 2016 .

In 2016, opening the health section of any newspaper, magazine or website tells us that sugar is public enemy number one. This may be for good reason – the most recent data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) suggested that in the UK non-milk extrinsic sugar (NMES) intake exceeded recommended amounts, particularly in children aged 11-18. This was also reflected last week by the Government’s sugar tax.

However, the focus on sugar has diverted media attention away from other important dietary issues. For instance, sodium (salt) intake is linked to high blood pressure (hypertension), and consequently, cardiovascular disease (CVD, or heart disease). CVD is a major cause of premature death worldwide, with the British Heart Foundation (BHF) reporting 155,000 CVD-related deaths in the UK in 2015. The health risks of hypertension also have economic implications with BHF estimating a yearly cost to the UK of £18 billion by 2020. 

So, how are we doing in England?      

Today, new data on salt intake, in adults aged 19-64 in England have been published (funded by Public Health England (PHE) and collected by NatCen and the Medical Research Council Human Nutrition Research (MRC HNR)). As the graph below shows the average daily salt intake was 8 grams – 33% above the Government recommendation of no more than 6 grams per day. Not looking good. However, a little further investigation shows that not all of us are doing so badly, with a large amount of variation between adults (ranging between 0.8 - 24 grams per day).

Salt intake

Information is power…

Despite these figures, consumers of the media in 2016 would be forgiven for thinking that salt has fallen off the public health agenda. However, there have been considerable efforts to raise awareness of the effects of excess salt intake in recent years. For example information on the risks of excess salt intake is included in PHE’s Change 4 Life campaign.

But it’s just the tip of the iceberg

There is still one key issue. The greatest source of salt intake actually comes from the salt that's already in food products when we buy them. Amongst the worst offenders are the food industry’s tasty solutions to our ever-shrinking meal times – ready meals.

But let’s give credit where it’s due. Since 2003 the Government has implemented voluntary targets for the food industry to reduce the salt content of processed foods, and significant achievements have been made here. And consumers are increasingly empowered to make informed choices by clear front-of-pack nutrition labelling.

But does the recent intake data reflect these changes? Well, actually, yes. Relative to 2005/06 there has been a downward trend, with an estimated 11% mean decrease in salt intake.

The figures are going in the right direction. Perhaps this is testament to the combined efforts of the Government and industry. Whether the same path can be followed for our new sweeter nemesis remains to be seen.   

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