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Countries will not meet salt reduction targets to protect health, says WHO

The world is off track to meet its target of reducing salt intake by almost a third by 2025, costing thousands of lives, according to a new World Health Organisation (WHO) report.

In a critical study, WHO said more needs to be done to cut how much people consume, including when salt is added at the table and sold in ready meals, takeaways and everyday items such as biscuits and crackers.

It warned that in high-income countries, such as the UK, “a significant proportion of sodium intake can be attributed to processed food”.

Too much salt is known to increase the risk of high blood pressure, which is linked to heart disease and stroke. High blood pressure affects around a third of adults in England.

According to WHO, implementing the report’s key recommendations “may save over two million deaths by 2025 and seven million by 2030”.

It called for renewed efforts to cut salt in food, strengthen front-of-pack labelling to help consumers decide, and carrying out mass media campaigns to “alter consumer behaviour”.

In the UK, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recommends that adults should consume no more than 6g of salt per day, but the National Diet and Nutrition Survey published in 2020 showed adults are consuming much more than this, at 8.4g per day.

Public Health England published voluntary salt reduction targets for manufacturers in 2020 that are to be achieved by 2024.

These include specific targets for cutting salt in a range of products, including meats, crisps and snacks, cereals, bread, ready meals and sauces.

Manufacturers must by law list the amount of salt in a food on the back of the packet, though front-of-pack nutrition labelling is voluntary.

The new report from WHO argues that voluntary targets are not enough as it urged more countries to introduce mandatory restrictions to protect health.

It said the world is not on track to cut sodium intake by 30%.

The main source of sodium is salt, with sodium being one of the chemical elements found in salt.

WHO said only 3% of the world’s population is protected by mandatory sodium reduction policies.

Director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “Unhealthy diets are a leading cause of death and disease globally, and excessive sodium intake is one of the main culprits.”

As part of its recommendations, WHO said countries should ensure that contracts to provide food do limit the salt in public institutions such as hospitals, schools, workplaces and nursing homes.

In 2013, all 194 WHO member states, including the UK, committed to reducing population sodium intake by 30% by the year 2025.

The report said: “Since then, progress has been slow and only a few countries have been able to reduce population sodium intake, but no-one has been able to achieve the target.

“As such, it is being considered to extend the target to 2030.”

John Maingay, director of policy and influencing at the British Heart Foundation, said: “It is well established that high salt intake contributes to high blood pressure, which is associated with around half of all heart attacks and strokes in the UK.

“This important new report from the WHO highlights the enormous potential benefits in accelerating salt reduction to meet global targets.

“This would help to make headway in reducing the huge burden of heart and circulatory diseases.

“While the UK has taken steps in the right direction with voluntary labelling and reformulation policies, we could go much further and faster, especially in areas where the food industry has not done enough.

“We urgently need to look at mandatory reformulation and front-of-pack labelling, to help us meet UK and international targets and better protect the nation’s heart health.”