Could a UK ‘Salt Tax’ Improve Heart Health?

Benedict Pignatelli

From salting your water before you add the pasta, to dousing your chips after a night out, salt is more than just a necessary condiment for cooking; it is an undisputed deity of the culinary process. And it is in everything. Chicken, cured meats, seafood, pizza, bread, soup, canned foods, cheese, eggs – to name but a few. The majority of food has at least some sodium in it. Moreover, it is estimated that over 80% of salt ingested is already in the food when bought, rather than being added afterwards, meaning consumers have less choice about what they are putting into their body.

Health risks of salt

If you get a takeaway or go to a restaurant, you can be sure a healthy (or not so healthy) dose of salt has been used in the preparation. While you may like salt as much as the next person, there are serious health risks that come with too much salt in your diet. From bloating, headaches and high blood pressure, to stomach cancer, strokes, and heart attacks, too much salt can be just as dangerous as too much sugar.

A 2022 report by the World Health Organisation commented on the increase in unhealthy eating, namely foods with higher levels of salt, sugar and fat, since the start of the pandemic. This was paired with a decrease in physical activity (although 5k runs certainly became popular during the first wave of the pandemic, there was otherwise a general lack of movement in the country).

The report went on to suggest many foods had unnecessarily high salt levels, including baby and toddler food. The product labelling was dubbed ‘misleading’, making it difficult for parents to determine the true health benefits or concerns with the product.

Reports and studies demonstrating the health risks of too much salt are easily found. The National Food Strategy lamented the food consumed in Britain, and the way it is produced. It argued the British diet was the cause of 64,000 deaths a year, and £74 billion a year on the economy, in part due to strains on the NHS.

Studies suggest if salt was reduced from the average person’s diet, the chances of a stroke or heart attack would be drastically reduced, significantly reducing the number of annual deaths (22% reduction for strokes, 16% for heart attacks).

All these reasons beg the question, should there be a national tax on salt? Would it benefit people’s health, and would it be worth the drawbacks?

Nanny State vs having a Good Nanny

In April 2018, the Sugar Tax, officially the Soft Drink Industry Levy, came into effect. Manufacturers of soft drinks (not fruit juices) were charged between 18p and 24p per litre if they had over 5g of sugar per 100ml. In 2019 the National Food Strategy recommended a further sugar and salt tax, but it was immediately shot down by the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

The original tax was met with mixed reviews. Although there was reportedly a 10% drop in sugar purchase since the tax was implemented, as well as more money for the treasury to put into things like healthcare, many criticised the bill.

MP Will Quince argued it was impractical and indicative of a ‘nanny state’. Jamie Oliver also stressed the dangers of a nanny state but overall argued it was worth it. The killer of the Turkey Twizzler is very critical of the current UK diet, especially the Tesco Meal Deal, which encourages people to eat junk food over healthier alternatives. He argued there is a need for change and was not opposed to the tax, arguing voluntary measures do not work.

The main issue with the sugar tax, and the idea of adding a salt tax, is the cost. Although money raised by the tax could be spent well, such as on more free school meals or finding alternatives to unhealthy eating, the tax could add up to £3.4 billion a year to British taxpayers’ bills.

Finding a solution

Food inflation is at its highest since March 2013, the cost of living has skyrocketed, petrol is worth more than the car it’s being poured into, and there is no summer World Cup to take our minds off of it.

Archie Norman, the chairman of Marks & Spencer, cautioned the average food shop could increase by £271 per year going forward. People who are behind the tax, such as Jamie Oliver, are being met with fierce criticism. Adding another tax at such a time, raising the overall cost of living, is not a move that is at all realistic in the current economic climate.

That is not to say there is nothing to be done. A study in 2014 took a case of 20,000 people in rural China, all either over 60 years of age or with underlying heart problems. Their diet was changed, with salt being substituted for a low sodium, high potassium alternative. By the end of the study, there was a more significant drop in the rate of fatal or nonfatal stroke events than there was in the regular salt group.

Although removing salt entirely from the food industry comes with its own problems, it is interesting to see there are options that could benefit the British people.

In 2007, Forbes listed the most overweight countries in the world, and the UK did not fare well – 28th place, with a staggering 63.8% of people overweight. This was much higher than neighbours Ireland (103rd, 46.6%), and France (128th, 40.1%). Although there are many factors why this could happen, salt is a key proponent of unhealthy eating.

Would a salt tax Improve Heart Health? In all likelihood, yes. Whether it is through a salt tax, ingredient reform or other options, it is clear something needs to change in order to improve the health of people living in the UK.

About the author: Benedict Pignatelli is a contributing writer from Dublin, Ireland. He studied World Religions and Arabic Language, and has an interest in Middle Eastern politics. He also writes fiction and was longlisted for the 2019 Bridport Prize.