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British drive to reduce salt saved lives

By Mary MacVean Los Angeles Times

LONDON - A 15 percent reduction in salt consumption was likely "an important contributor" to a 40 percent reduction in stroke and heart disease deaths in the last decade in England, researchers said Monday.

The "single largest" contribution to the decline in deaths was a decrease in blood pressure, they said.

Smoking and blood cholesterol also declined over the period, 2003-11; produce consumption and body mass index rose. At the same time, there were improvements in treatment for high blood pressure and heart disease, they said in the online British Medical Journal Open.

The English government in 2003 began a program to get companies gradually to reduce the salt levels in processed foods. It led to a 15 percent decrease by 2011, the researchers wrote. Since the start of that program, salt intake fell by 1.4 grams a day. (In the United States, health authorities recommend people consume a limit of around 2 grams a day, depending on several factors such as age; the average intake is 3.4 to 4 grams.)

Because processed foods account for about 80 percent of total salt intake, and the industry undertook a gradual reduction in salt added to all such foods, the researchers said, it's likely that the salt reduction occurred across the population.

But, they wrote, "It is difficult to quantify the relative contribution of salt reduction" to the diseases, but analysis of the data around the disease and deaths show it had a "significant role."

"In the U.K., the political action group 'Action on Salt' worked with the government and the food industry to slowly wean the British populace off salt, with excellent results. Yet, our food industry has fought a similar action tooth and nail," said Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, author and an advocate for reducing sugar consumption.

He noted that another group hopes to "wean the British populace slowly off sugar; but you can image how well this will go over here with the U.S. food industry. We need to reduce our sugar consumption to improve public health. In the absence of industry cooperation, a sugar tax or other more draconian government intervention will likely be required," Lustig said by email.

Salt intake needs to drop further in the U.K., the researchers said. Salt consumption increases blood pressure - a risk factor for stroke and heart disease.

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