Public Health England finally set new salt reduction targets

PHE have announced new salt reduction targets for food manufacturers across a range of products, but are they enough to lower our salt intakes?



On 7 September, Public Health England (PHE) set new targets for salt and calorie reduction as part of the Government’s new Obesity Strategy. The targets aim to encourage food manufacturers to reduce the amount of salt and calories in their food products by 2024 in order to improve the health of both children and adults in the UK. We welcome the long-awaited targets, however, there is a question mark over whether they go far enough and will be met in practice.

Blood Pressure UK and Action on Salt have since written to Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock MP to call for an independent body to be made responsible for salt reduction in the UK. This follows the announcement that PHE will be dismantled, which casts doubt on the future of the salt reduction programme.

Excess calories contribute to weight gain and salt directly raised blood pressure, both of which lead to serious health problems including heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. The food industry can play a vital role in improving the nation’s health by adding less salt, fat and sugar to our food.

The new target guidelines include food products we buy in shops, and foods eaten out of home in cafes, restaurants and takeaways, where progress has generally been slower. PHE have committed to progress reports on the new targets in 2022, 2024 and 2025. However, the targets are voluntary, so the food industry are not required to meet them by law.

Salt reduction targets

Salt reduction targets have been in place for many years as part of the UK’s salt reduction programme, which sets incremental reductions in the amount of salt added to food. The programme was originally hugely successful, leading to a fall in salt intakes and therefore blood pressure that is estimated to have prevented 18,000 strokes and heart attacks every year, 9,000 of which would have been fatal[1]. However, there has been little action from the Government and food industry in recent years and little progress has been made.

The new salt targets are a continuation of previous targets set in 2014 by the Department of Health which were due to be met in 2017. They revise targets for numerous food categories, lowering the salt targets for most but not all categories.  They also include an additional 8 categories that weren’t previously covered:

  1. Ready meal sides and accompaniments
  2. Savoury popcorn
  3. Sweet popcorn
  4. Flavoured nuts
  5. Chilli sauce
  6. Dips
  7. Other condiments
  8. Pizza split into 2 categories - pizza with cured meat toppings and pizza with all other toppings

Companies selling food in supermarkets, restaurants, takeaways and cafes, are expected to lower their salt levels by between 5-20%.

Calorie reduction targets

Calorie reduction targets were first consulted on in 2018, and were finally put into guidelines announced on 7 September 2020. They have been termed ‘ambitions’ rather than targets, and cover aims for calorie reduction to help the nation to lose weight.

Overweight and obesity have come under the spotlight recently due to the association with a higher risk of complications from COVID-19.

Key ambitions include:

  • 20% calorie reduction for meals in the out of home sector
  • 10% calorie reduction for children’s meals
  • 10% calorie reduction for retailers and manufacturers
  • 5% calorie reduction in sandwiches for both retail and out of home
  • 5% calorie reduction for crisps and savoury snacks for both retail and out of home

Professor Graham MacGregor CBE, Chairman of Blood Pressure UK and Action on Salt, says: "Less salty foods will make it easier to make healthier choices. We welcome the latest announcement from PHE on a renewed focus on food reformulation. Rather than waiting until 2024, the quicker manufacturers release their improved products, the quicker we will all see the benefits on our health.

The new targets recognise how far the retail sector has come already compared to the eating out of the home sector. It is vital that restaurants, takeaways and home delivery companies are brought in line with the supermarkets, as they are still an important contributor of salt. The out of home sector must play their part in providing us with healthier options if we are to have a healthy recovery from the pandemic.

Given previous experiences with voluntary guidelines, we call on the Government once again to set up an independent watchdog for the management of these programmes, with sanctions or levies if the food industry do not comply."

See the complete guidelines from Public Health England:

Salt reduction: targets for 2024

Calorie reduction: guidelines for the food industry

Salt targets 2017: second progress report 

[1] He FJ, Pombo-Rodrigues S, MacGregor GA. Salt reduction in England from 2003 to 2011: its relationship to blood pressure, stroke and ischaemic heart disease mortality. BMJ Open 2014;4:e004549. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2013-004549