The United Kingdom is leading the world in reducing dietary salt, which could help the nation curb high blood pressure and heart disease.

High salt intake elevates blood pressure and is believed to be a serious risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, like stroke, heart attack, and heart failure. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that reducing worldwide salt consumption by 15 percent could prevent up to 8.5 million early deaths over 10 years. Its goal is to reduce global salt intake to 5 grams per person daily by 2025.

The UK Department of Health (DOH) pledged to meet the WHO recommedations in 2003 and recruited several corporations to agree to the undertaking, which could save the country nearly £300 million per year. Nearly one in the three Brits suffers from high blood pressure, according to the National Health Service, and coronary heart disease is the UK's biggest killer (82,000 deaths per year).

This volunteer salt reduction program, now considered one of the most successful nutrition policies in UK history, was devised in most part in 1996 by Dr. Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at St. George's University of London, and his NGO policy group Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH). Their early strategies advocated for a 40 percent drop in salt content for processed foods and an identical reduction in salt used while cooking.

In a recent study, MacGregor and his colleagues report that salt content in UK bread dropped by 20 percent over the last 10 years. Bread is the number 1 source of dietary sodium in the UK, as well as in the U.S., New Zealand, and Australia.

Three independent surveys of supermarket and brand name breads were conducted in 2001, 2006, and 2011. Each one collected salt content from the nutritional labels on the bread packaging.

Over the course of the last decade, higher salt levels were seen in brand name breads versus loaves produced by supermarkets.

"Branded products were found to contain approximately 10 percent more salt compared with supermarket breads in 2011," wrote the authors, who consequently argued that brand names represent an opportunity for further gains in eliminating dietary sodium.

Salt content was similar between whole wheat, brown, and white bread loafs.

The UK DOH recommended that food suppliers reduce the salt contect in their products by 2012. This study found that 71 percent of the breads had met this goal. In 2001, only 28 percent were at this level.

The 2001 survey recorded salt in 39 bread products, while the 2006 and 2011 investigations looked at 138 and 203 items, respectively. Eighteen products overlapped between all three years, and this subgroup of breads had similar reduction — 17 percent less salt — relative to the overall findings.

"While a voluntary target based approach works to encourage industry reductions, the targets need to be coupled with the forceful government or quasi-government agency to ensure that all sectors of the food industry are aware of the targets and reducing salt in their products to meet [them]," concluded the authors.

"Other countries around the world need to follow the UK's lead and set salt targets."

Source: Brinsden HC, He FJ, Jenner KH, MacGregor GA. Surveys of the salt content in UK bread: progress made and further reductions possible. BMJ Open. 2013.