From celebrity chefs to government reports, the ’war on sugar’ has been the focal point of public health in this country for a while now. Quite rightly, there has been a huge focus on how to reduce the nation’s sugar intake – including what role the food industry should be playing in helping people eat more healthily.
But we can’t lose sight of the other work that must be done if we are to play our part in helping improve people’s health. My fear is that as the debate and attention shifts, momentum in other areas is lost – and this is the risk on salt reduction.
There have been real pockets of success in this area – from retailers to manufacturers – and the 2018 progress report on industry efforts to reduce salt identifies some big achievements, with three-quarters of foods manufactured now below the maximum salt targets. But the job is not complete. That’s why we must all ensure salt reduction remains a key priority for the industry and nobody takes a backwards step.
The past few days have seen this issue debated by policymakers, health campaigners, scientists and manufacturers. As the producer of some of the UK’s most popular dinnertime brands, like Dolmio and Uncle Ben’s, we have a key role to play in making it easier for people to eat healthy, balanced diets – and that includes reducing their salt intake. We’ve done a lot. From 2007 to 2012 we reduced sodium across our global portfolio by 25%. More recently, we further reformulated our Dolmio Bolognese range and our Ready to Heat rice range and our total portfolio meets the UK’s 2017 salt reduction targets, including our foodservice business.
But a survey released by Action on Salt this week shows that 40% of restaurant meals have become saltier in the past four years. As the way people buy and consume food out of home rapidly evolves, it’s clear that a holistic approach to salt reduction is required. If people are eating high-salt food in restaurants and through food delivery then they’re more likely to expect products they buy on shelf to have a similar taste profile. They’re more likely to add table salt to their meals at home, too. Successful reformulation work undertaken over years can therefore be undone if not everyone plays their part.
Why is this issue so important? Well, the harmful effects that come with too much salt are obvious.
The Department of Health estimates that if we reduced our average salt intake from 8g per day to 6g per day then we could prevent more than 8,000 premature deaths (ie deaths before the age of 70) per year from heart attacks and stroke. Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of campaign group Action on Salt, which has for many years led the way in driving change, describes the current situation as a “national tragedy”.
While the 2018 PHE report rightly recognises successes, chief nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone argued that even stronger leadership from the British food industry would deliver yet further successful salt reformulation – with all its associated positive outcomes. Of course, this isn’t about ignoring the fact that salt plays an important role in food – it’s about ensuring it is used in a responsible way.
As an industry, we can be pleased with our progress but we mustn’t be complacent. There is still more work to do. And we need everyone to come to the table and play their part – generating the energy required to take people with us as we continue to reduce sodium. I hope that in this spirit of collaboration we can make it easier than ever for people to take the healthy option – without having to compromise on taste.