So what went wrong, and how can we fix it?
In the early Noughties, a nationwide program to slowly reduce the salt content in pre-prepared food sought to gradually wean us off our insatiable taste for sodium. And it worked. The Food Standards Agency had instructed the industry to cut the amount of salt they were adding to food, and per-capita consumption of salt fell from over 9g to 8.1ga day. Adults should eat no more than 6g a day, say experts, but we have never quite managed this target, and as all eyes turned to other evils like sugar, the calls to keep on top of our salt intake seemed to melt away. In the meantime, though, the vast majority of us continue to surpass 6g daily.
In 2014, British Medical Journal analysis showed a nationwide reduction in salt consumption had contributed to a fall in blood pressure between 2003 and 2011, which in turn had helped the number of stroke and heart attack deaths come down. Meanwhile, the campaigning group Action on Salt claims that for every gram of salt removed from the average UK diet we can save 4,147 lives every year through the reduction in deaths from stroke and heart attack and prevent a further 4,147 non-fatal strokes and heart attacks each year.
“We know that adults in England on average have about 8.4g of salt per day, which is about 40 per cent over our recommended maximum of 6g, or a teaspoon of salt,” says Parker. “85 per cent of the salt we eat is already in the foods that we buy, so it’s not as simple as thinking about reducing our salt intake at the table or in our cooking. Most of us are eating more salt than we realise, because it’s already in our food.”
Part of the problem, says nutritionist Jane Clarke, is that regulations on sugar meant manufacturers had to up the salt levels to ensure products still tasted good. “Breakfast cereal can have [a lot of] salt in it – you’d be surprised. Because they’ve been hit on the sugar, they’re trying to get the flavor from the salt.” Currently there are no regulations on salt. The Government’s targets for salt reduction in food are purely voluntary, hence our creeping intake.
Even the things that claim to be healthy, like pre-cooked grain pouches, veggie burgers or supermarket soups, contain high levels. A bean stew, marketed as a healthy ready meal, could contain a third of your daily allowance of salt. Add more at the table, whether in the form of flakes, or perhaps a liberal grating of cheese or a side of toast with salty butter – and you could surpass your daily teaspoon in one sitting.
Plant-based alternatives, such as fake chicken or dairy, are among the worst offenders. “We have to be mindful about what’s going into these plant-based foods,” says Parker. “You could have two meals – one with some lean meat vs a plant-based meat alternative – and if you look at the packaging, the nutritional information can look very different. The meat one could end up being the healthier option (when it comes to salt).”
But what about those minimally processed gourmet salts, like Maldon salt or pink Himalayan rock salt, are they really any better for us? Sadly the sodium content is pretty much the same as ordinary table salt. So choose the one you like the taste of and use in moderation.