To mark Salt Awareness Week 2008 this week, the Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) has released condemning results from its own study, showing many UK foods can still contain more than half the daily maximum limit for a six-year-old in a single serving.
"We want to see all manufacturers doing everything they can to reduce the salt they put in children's food," said Graham MacGregor, CASH chairman and professor at St George's Hospital. "If they really cannot reduce the salt content in food eaten by children to reasonable levels, perhaps they should consider ceasing production."
However, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) released new research by TNS Worldpanel on the nutrition labels of 100,000 food and drink products, which demonstrated efforts made by the industry to cut salt content. It found UK consumers are consuming an average of 0.3 per cent less salt in the past 12 months.
High salt intake has been linked to high blood pressure, leading to heart attacks and strokes. A high-salt diet has also been related to stomach cancer and osteoporosis, and can aggravate the symptoms of asthma.
According to the UK government Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, four to six year-olds should eat no more than 3g of salt a day, half the adult limit.
The CASH research found that some savoury foods by leading firms such as Kraft, Tesco's and Batchelors contain over 1g of salt per serving, which is equal to a third of a six-year-old's daily maximum limit and half the daily salt limit for a three year old.
For example, it found a meal containing beans and a burger could contain as much as 4.2g of salt, which represents far more salt in a single meal than children up to the age of six should consume in a whole day.
Jo Butten, nutritionist for CASH, said: "We want to see clear front of pack labelling, including information on how much of a child's daily limit the food supplies, on all foods eaten by children."
Butten claimed many parents are unaware that some sweet foods contain high salt levels, and they seem confused about the relationship between salt and sodium.
She said: "Labels giving only sodium levels will lull these parents into a false sense of security as they try to find lower salt foods for their children. Parents deserve more support from manufacturers."
Betty McBride, director of policy and communications for the British Heart Foundation said: "Shoppers' problems are compounded by confusing food labelling that can make it difficutlt to quickly choose lower salt options for their families at the supermarket."
Efforts from the industry
Food manufacturers do take the issue of salt content seriously. According to the FDF, the UK food and drink industry is widely seen as leading the world when it comes to reformulating products. Since 2004, the formulations used for at least £15bn (€20bn) worth of foods have less fat, sugar and salt.
The sectors that experienced some of the biggest reductions in salt content included crisps, breakfast cereals, bread, home cooking products and canned goods.
In the crisps category, the recent research confirms that products bought by consumers last year contained the equivalent of 200 tonnes less salt than those purchased the previous year.
A similar decrease has been seen in the bread sector, a category where salt reduction started in the 1980s.
The salt content of savoury home cooking products bought by shoppers was down by 1,200 tonnes, while canned goods saw an equivalent reduction of 106 tonnes year-on-year.
Julian Hunt, FDF Director of Communications, said: "This research provides an important 12-month shapshot of the work that retailers and manufacturers have been doing to reduce the salt content of their products. These efforts have been sustained over many years, which is why our industry is widely recognised as leading the world when it comes to reformulation."
According to the FDF, easily recognisable GDA labels are now used by 58 companies and feature on the front of more than 20,000 product lines. This accounts for over half of all food packs sold in the UK.
Hunt continued: "Industry's reformulation efforts are underpinned by the widespread use of front-of-pack nutrition labels using Guideline Daily Amount information to educate consumers that they should aim to consume no more than 6g of salt a day."
Last week, the UK government unveiled the first steps it will take in its national strategy to fight obesity, earmarking £372m (€501m) for the cause.
Its labelling proposal, called for a "single, simple and effective" food labelling system, which will be developed in partnership with the food industry. It is designed to provide consumers with consistent information, following concerns that the three different labelling schemes in use today could be leading to confusion.