Salt has been used as a seasoning and preservative for tens of thousands of years. Homer described it as a divine substance. Cutting back on the most popular of condiments was never going to be easy, and so it has proved

It is the sodium in sodium chloride (salt) that is essential to health, helping to regulate fluid levels and help the transmission of nerve impulses.

But too much sodium increases the volume of fluid retained in the body's tissues and this, many scientists believe, increases blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and stroke.

In 1994, the Government's Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy (Coma) recommended a reduction in daily salt intake from 9g to 6g. John Major's government drew up plans to promote this reduction but was threatened with a withdrawal of funding from the Conservative Party by several big food companies.

The government chief medical officer later said that in the light of continuing uncertainty about the link between salt and ill-health, plans to reduce salt intake were to be suspended.

In 1996, a group of medical specialists called Consensus Action on Salt and Health (Cash) began a campaign to implement the Coma recommendations. It has countered claims by the Salt Manufacturers' Association that evidence of damaging effects is not clear-cut by showing that the food industry is chiefly to blame for the excess salt we consume and has most to lose.

Seventy-five per cent of the salt we eat comes in processed food such as ready meals and only 25 per cent is added at the table. But manufacturers fear cutting salt will reduce the appeal of their products.

Despite claims from the big companies that they have begun reducing salt, yesterday's survey by the Food Standards Agency shows how limited progress has been.

The current chief medical officer, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, has joined those calling for a cut in salt intake. In his 2001 annual report, he said a "large body of scientific opinion" acknowledged that cutting salt intake would reduce blood pressure and cited the Coma recommendation for a cut from 9g to 6g a day.

"As chief medical officer I support this target as even a small reduction in sodium intake could help to reduce the burden of high blood pressure in our population," he wrote.

Two years later, despite making some of the right noises, food companies continue to show a cynical disregard for this advice, putting at risk the health of their customers.