Every day at least 26 million people in the UK eat more salt than is good for them, said the Food Standards Agency (FSA), calling on the industry to continue efforts to cut the levels in processed foods.
Chair of the UK National Consumer Council, Deirdre Hutton, said that on average people were eating just over nine grams of salt a day, one and a half times more than the recommended six grams.
"It's staggering that 75 per cent of it is hidden in processed food, including some less obvious culprits such as breakfast cereals, biscuits and even bread. Often its identity is disguised on the label as sodium," she said.
UK-based company RHM, which owns popular cake brands such as Lyons and Mr. Kipling as well as Hovis bread, said in a statement that it recognised the FSA's campaign to reduce peoples' salt intake "in order to have a generally beneficial impact on the health of the nation".
The company said that it had already reduced the salt content of its breads by 10 per cent and had launched a new loaf, Hovis Best of Health, that contained 25 per cent less salt than standard loaves.
A statement from another UK company, Allied Bakeries, which owns the bread brands Allinson, Sunblest, Burgen and Kingsmill, said it had worked hard to reduce salt content in its products, and that a loaf of Kingsmill contained seven times less salt than the industry average.
Martin Paterson, deputy director general of the UK's food industry body, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), said: "The whole food industry has already made great strides in reducing the amount of salt in a wide range of processed foods."
He said that the FDF would continue to work with the FSA and the Department of Health to help achieve sodium reductions in consumer diets.
But both Allied Bakeries and RHM warned against reducing salt levels too much, saying that salt was a vital food manufacturing ingredient for providing flavour and texture, as well as acting as a preservative.
Allied Bakeries added that "sodium is an essential component in a healthy, varied and balanced diet and salt (sodium chloride) is the major source of sodium in the diet".
But Food Standards Agency chair Sir John Krebs said greater change was still needed: "The food industry is about two-thirds of the way to reaching our target of a one gram reduction in processed foods by the end of 2005. However, to reach the ambitious target of six grams per day by 2010 will require further action by both consumers and industry if we are to reduce the human and health costs of eating too much salt."
Hutton said she was glad the FSA recognised that it would take more than an awareness campaign to change diets. "Their emphasis on working with the industry to reduce the salt content of processed foods is vital, particularly now that more hectic lifestyles mean a growing reliance on convenience and other fast food," she said.
Eating too much salt is associated with an increased risk in developing high blood pressure, a cause or contributing factor in 170,000 deaths a year in England alone.
"Studies show that reducing salt in the diet can lower blood pressure within four weeks, which helps protect the individual and reduces the cost to the National Health Service," the FSA said in a statement today, pitching the overall cost to the NHS of prescriptions for reducing high blood pressure at around £840 million, nearly 15 per cent of the total annual cost of all primary care drugs.
The FSA campaign has been welcomed across the board by health and food industry groups. Peter Hollins, director general of the British Heart Foundation said: "We are delighted to support the FSA's campaign which highlights the dangers of eating too much salt."
A joint statement of support for the campaign was issued by the British Retail Consortium, the Food and Drink Federation, the British Hospitality Association and the National Farmers' Union, as well as the Burger King fast food chain and most major food retailers; including Sainsbury's, Tesco and Marks & Spencer.