Legal limits on salt levels in food are 20 times more effective at reducing heart disease than voluntary measures, it has been claimed.
Scientists in Australia came to the conclusion after assessing the public health benefits and cost-effectiveness of different salt restriction strategies.
They examined an Australian marketing programme that encourages food manufacturers to reduce the salt content of their products.
The team also looked at the likely impact of mandatory curbs on salt.
The researchers costed the different strategies in terms of their impact on years of good health over a lifetime, and the associated long-term healthcare savings.
They took into consideration the salt content of bread, margarine, and cereals, the amount of products sold, average consumption per head, the cost of legislation and evidence from healthcare professionals.
Dietary advice alone was not found to be effective, while voluntary industry restrictions cut ill-health from cardiovascular disease by almost 1%.
However, population-wide health benefits could be almost 20% greater if legal mandatory limits were imposed, said the researchers. The figures showed that such measures would reduce cardiovascular ill health by 18%.
The findings are published today in the journal Heart.
Dr Linda Cobiac, from the University of Queensland, and colleagues wrote: “Food manufacturers have a responsibility to make money for their shareholders, but they also have a responsibility to society. If corporate responsibility fails, maybe there is an ethical justification for government to step in and legislate.”