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Salt Has Become a Political Tool in the UK

A report published in the British Medical Journal says that UK salt consumption is higher than ever before, due to policy changes of the coalition government.
Photo via Flickr user Nicolas Noyes

In the run up to the general election, salt has become a political lightning rod. Like most British people, I eat far, far too much of it. I am practically married to salt. It has rendered my taste buds inert: my tongue is an arid plain, capable of reacting only to the sweet-yet-tangy mistress of sodium.

Earlier this week, the British Medical Journal published a damning report on salt consumption in the UK. It's upsetting reading for many reasons, but chiefly because I was eating a pizza as I read it, and pizza has up to three times the daily recommended amount of salt.


Authored by Professor Graham A. MacGregor of the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine, the main thrust of the report is this: since the coalition government took charge in 2010, we have gone backwards. That is to say, we now eat more salt than we ever did. Each Briton munches 8.1 grams of salt a day, which is 2.1 grams over the recommended amount. Across the entire population, that's 134.61 million grams more than necessary.

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But this is only the latest turn in the long-running battle between Labour and the Conservatives for power over the way we eat. The UK, politics, and food have a long history.

Back in 2000, the UK Food Standards Agency was established by Labour to monitor nutrition as an independent body committed to "safer food for the nation."

The FSA fast became a world leader in doing things like battling mad cow disease and kicking salt out of your Big Mac. Countries like America, Argentina, and Australia have all adopted policies in response to the organisation's work.

According to the BMJ report, by 2005, the FSA had set salt targets for 85 different categories of food to be met by 2012, and lobbied hard for a unified traffic light system to be placed across all forms of munchies. It intended to cut salt consumption by 10-20 percent every two years, on average.

But in 2010, along came the coalition government and Andrew Lansley, who took control of nutrition policy from the FSA. His dream for health cohered precisely with the coalition's penchant for privatisation and big business. (This is the same Lansley who was also in charge of the wider privatisation of the NHS.)


The FSA was brought into line. The traffic lights were unplugged and a new focus on deals with businesses was introduced, referred to as the "Responsibility Deal." This meant that national health, apparently, was no longer in the hands of government, but of the companies that sold unhealthy, addictive foods for profit in a competitive market.

No new goals were set; indeed Lansley lobbied to remove the 2012 target. After three years of under-performing, the Coalition then plucked the traffic lights out of the bin and announced they would be going nationwide, as if it were their idea.

Fast forward another few years and Lansley is no longer an MP, forced out after the British Medical Association publicly called for his resignation. When I reached out for comment from Lansley, the response was: "Not really, as he's no longer an MP."

The BMJ report also stated that due to these policy changes, the coalition could be responsible for 4,000 deaths. Of course, this isn't Lansley's fault. It was never his intention to do anything but help make the country more efficient—the reduction of that nebulous deficit every politician chases like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

So, in fucking us with salt, the coalition government has at least saved the UK economy £1.5 billion, right? That's so much, yeah? Not exactly. £1.5 billion is 0.23 percent of the national budget, which is a miniscule amount to gain from sacrificing the health of 64 million people.

READ MORE: Even Diet Soda Could Be Making You Fat

As with all conveniently released, pre-election financial figures, there is more to the story. Recently, the University of Nottingham created a form of salt that is 23.7 percent less bad for you, but still full of tangy goodness. Another piece of research in Food & Function suggests a "promising new approach for sodium reduction in liquid and semi-liquid emulsion based foods."

But with the sustained coalition policy of austerity, the Government has pretty much screwed over some of the most vulnerable people in Britain. As The Telegraph weirdly reports, there is a social class issue here: all the most reasonably priced foods are the ones with the highest salt content.

Make no mistake, it isn't the people of David Cameron's set who are being hurt by the sloppy handling of salt reduction, it's the poor. When money is scarce and food is expensive, it's only logical that people will buy the cheapest goods. It's a system designed to fuck people over, and it all comes down to a single grain of salt.