Graham MacGregor, professor of medicine at St George's hospital, Tooting, south London, who addressed a conference on salt in London yesterday, said recognition of the dangers had increased sharply in the past year. "It has gradually built up [among retailers] to the point where anyone with common sense has said we have got to do something," he said.
Three supermarket chains - Asda, Marks & Spencer and the Co-op - have moved to cut salt levels in their processed foods and others, including Tesco and Sainsbury, are now racing to catch up. The companies' chiefs have been delighted that the consumer resistance they feared has failed to materialise.
Asda led the way in cutting salt levels by at least 10 per cent across more than two-thirds of its own-label brands, and Sue Malcolm, nutritionist for the company, said: "Not one customer noticed when 10 per cent of salt disappeared from Asda loaves of bread."
The Co-op, which has done a deal with the manufacturers of Lo-Salt, a salt substitute, to include it in their manufactured products, said there was still resistance within the food industry. Wendy Wrigley, head of Co-op brand, said: "There is a feeling that industry should not impose healthier eating on the public. Yet adding salt at the table is the easiest thing in the world. Removing salt at the table for those who don't want it is impossible."
Average consumption of salt is nine grams a day, only 15 per cent of which is added in cooking or at the table. About 10 per cent occurs naturally in foods but 75 per cent is added during processing.
The Government's expert Committee on the Medical Aspects of food policy recommended in 1994 that the salt content of the diet should be reduced from nine to six grams a day, but no government has adopted the target. It has been calculated that if the recommendations were followed, strokes would be cut by 22 per cent and heart attacks by 16 per cent, saving 34,000 lives a year.
Tessa Jowell, minister of Public Health, told the conference at the Royal Society of Medicine yesterday that officials at the Department of Health were meeting food industry representatives to agree a strategy after last month's White Paper on public health highlighted the need to cut salt consumption.
She said urgent research was needed on "what scope there is for reduction".
Verner Wheelock, professor of food science at the University of Nottingham and organiser of the conference, said that as supermarkets had begun to cut salt levels the problems they had foreseen had fallen away. "A lot of the objections were largely hypothetical... Things have really begun to take off now and if we sustain the momentum we will make major progress."
Danger on the Table
On average, a Briton eats 9g of salt a day. Experts recommend this be cut to 6g a day.
Salt raises blood pressure, which increases the risk of strokes and heart attacks.
If the target reduction to 6g a day were met, it would save 34,000 lives a year from heart attacks and strokes.
An average slice of bread contains 0.5g of salt.
Prepared meals are especially salty. Supermarket sausages and mash contains 5g, deep-pan pepperoni pizza 4.8g.
A traditional English cooked breakfast (bacon, sausage, bread and butter) contains up to 10g salt.
People in countries with a low-salt diet do not have the increase in blood pressure with age seen in Britain.Reuse content