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Weekly Comment

Salt debate leaves bitter taste

27-Mar-2006

The current debate about the levels at which the UK's food regulator has set its salt reduction targets misses the point about how healthier eating habits can be achieved.

The establishment of arbitrary targets, which aren't even enforceable by law, could help reduce the ongoing debate on the role salt plays in a healthy diet to an academic dispute over how much salt should be in, say, a slice of bread.

There is a danger, in other words, that the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA)'s proposed salt levels will become the focus of the debate. The agency's message that salt consumption should be reduced will be lost in detail and voluntary detail at that.

Because it is consumer power, not the law, which is the major driving force behind the market for salt-reduced food.

Let's put the FSA's announcement in context. It has been widely acknowledged that food companies have made significant reductions in the amount of salt in their products over the past few years.

According to the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), breakfast cereals have achieved a 33 per cent reduction in sodium from 1998 to 2005, while sodium levels in bread have been reduced by around 25 per cent since the late 1980s.

According to market analyst Mintel, the salt sector in the UK has seen sales fall 13 per cent from 23 million in 2000 to about 20 million in 2005. Salt has become a bad thing.

Such measures have not been carried out because food companies have been battered into submission by regulations. It is certainly not because their primary concern is the health and well being of their loyal customers.

Quite simply, salt in food has been reduced because the buying public has demanded it. There is a market out there for healthy food, and companies want a slice of the pie.

The FSA is in a great position to further promote this growth in reduced-salt food. The agency has already played a key role in the education of consumers, through the establishment of a dedicated site on the importance of salt reduction and through its work with both food companies and academics.

There is an engrained public perception that much salt is bad for you. The negative press given to salty snacks and processed food - the FSA estimates that 75 per cent of salt intake comes from processed foods incidentally - has established the fact that too mcuh salt is dnagerous.

It would surely be better for the FSA to continue to focus on the bigger picture - the importance of salt within the context of a balanced diet - than get bogged down in detail.