Sodium content of processed foods in the United Kingdom: analysis of
44,000 foods purchased by 21,000 households1–3
Cliona Ni Mhurchu, Cathy Capelin, Elizabeth K Dunford, Jacqueline L Webster, Bruce C Neal, and Susan A Jebb
Background: In the United Kingdom, sodium reduction targets
have been set for a large number of processed food categories.
Assessment and monitoring are essential to evaluate progress.
Objectives: Our aim was to determine whether household con-
sumer panel food-purchasing data could be used to assess the so-
dium content of processed foods. Our further objectives were to
estimate the mean sodium content of UK foods by category and
undertake analyses weighted by food-purchasing volumes.
Design: Data were obtained for 21,108 British households between
October 2008 and September 2009. Purchasing data (product de-
scription, product weight, annual purchases) and sodium values
(mg/100 g) were collated for all food categories known to be major
contributors to sodium intake. Unweighted and weighted mean so-
dium values were calculated.
Results: Data were available for 44,372 food products. The largest
contributors to sodium purchases were table salt (23%), processed
meat (18%), bread and bakery products (13%), dairy products
(12%), and sauces and spreads (11%). More than one-third of so-
dium purchased (37%) was accounted for by 5 food categories:
bacon, bread, milk, cheese, and sauces. For some food groups
(bread and bakery, cereals and cereal products, processed meat),
purchase-weighted means were 18–35% higher than unweighted
means, suggesting that market leaders have higher sodium contents
than the category mean.
Conclusion: The targeting of sodium reduction in a small number
of food categories and focusing on products sold in the highest
volumes could lead to large decreases in sodium available for con-
sumption and therefore to gains in public health.
Am J Clin
Excess dietary sodium is associated with high blood pressure
(1), which increases risk of cardiovascular disease (2, 3). In 2008,
UK population dietary salt intake was estimated to be 8.6 g/d (4),
which exceeds the maximum recommended limit of 6 g/d and
remains far above the 1–2 g/d required for good health. Efforts to
lower dietary sodium intakes can improve blood pressure and
reduce risk of cardiovascular disease (5, 6). Reducing intakes to
6 g/d could prevent ’17,500 premature deaths in the United
Kingdom each year (7). However, there is little evidence of
temporal decreases over the past several decades (8, 9).
In Europe and North America, most sodium (’75%) comes
from that added to foods due to commercial processing (10).
Accordingly, efforts are underway to decrease the sodium con-
tent of processed foods (11, 12), and the UK Food Standards
Agency (FSA) has set salt reduction targets for 80 categories of
food. Review of progress and targets is undertaken on a biennial
basis (13), although this nutrition policy work recently became
the responsibility of the UK Department of Health.
Monitoring effects of public health initiatives on food refor-
mulation is challenging. Dietary assessment using diary or recall
methods substantially underestimates sodium intakes (14, 15),
whereas 24-h urinary sodium collections, considered to be the
gold standard, are challenging for participants and cannot identify
food sources of sodium. Furthermore, the constantly changing
for more flexible and up-to-date methods to monitor population
Market research companies in many countries collect pur-
chasing data from household consumer panels that scan foods at
home. Such panels are generally nationally representative, collect
data on a continuous basis, and provide estimates of national
and regularly updates nutrient data to match to purchasing data.
The combination offood-purchasingdatawith nutrientdata offers
potentially improved precision in estimating population exposure
to sodium (16). Although purchasing data are not a surrogate for
reformulation and shifts in purchasing behavior.
The primary aim of these analyses was to determine if
household consumer panel food-purchasing data could be used to
assess the sodium content of processed foods. Secondary aims
1From the Elsie Widdowson Laboratory, Medical Research Council Hu-
man Nutrition Research, Cambridge, United Kingdom (CNM and SAJ); the
Clinical Trials Research Unit, The University of Auckland, Auckland, New
Zealand (CNM); Kantar Worldpanel, London, United Kingdom (CC); and
the George Institute for International Health, Sydney, Australia (EKD, JLW,
2Supported by the Medical Research Council. Data were provided by
Kantar Worldpanel at no charge. CNM holds the Heart Foundation of New
Zealand Senior Fellowship (grant 1380). EKD is supported by a Sydney
Medical Foundation Scholarship.
3Address correspondence to C Ni Mhurchu, Clinical Trials Research
Unit, School of Population Health, The University of Auckland, Private
Bag 92019, Auckland Mail Centre, Auckland 1142, New Zealand. E-mail:
Received September 16, 2010. Accepted for publication November 30, 2010.
First published online December 29, 2010; doi: 10.3945/ajcn.110.004481.
Am J Clin Nutr 2011;93:594–600. Printed in USA. ? 2011 American Society for Nutrition
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