An independent food watchdog has said that many processed food products are now saltier than ever despite claims by the food industry that salt levels have been reduced.

A survey conducted by the Food Commission and published in Food Magazine compared 1978 salt levels in white bread, crisps, baked beans and canned tomato soup with salt levels in equivalent products in January 2003.

Examination of crisps purchased in 2003 showed that the salt content had almost doubled since 1978, from an average of 540mg per 100g to 1050mg per 100g. Average salt levels had also risen in canned baked beans, from 480mg per 100g to 490mg per 100g. The Food Commission said that average salt levels for canned tomato soup and white bread showed very little improvement, despite industry and government claims that salt has been reduced in these processed foods.

In a second phase of the survey, the Food Commission compared salt levels in popular children’s foods with new recommendations for maximum salt intake for 1 to 6-year-old children. The survey showed that many popular children’s foods, including Burger King children’s meals, Dairylea Lunchables and Teletubbies canned pasta, would take a 6-year-old child over the recommended daily maximum intake with just one serving.

Research officer for the Food Commission Kath Dalmeny called for the food industry to take greater responsibility for public health by reducing salt in processed food. Eating too much salt is linked to high blood pressure, which is the main cause of strokes and a major factor in heart attacks.

“The government has acknowledged that processed foods are the main source of salt in most people’s diets,” Dalmeny said. “Most people, including children, eat about twice as much salt as the recommended maximum level. However, it is very hard for people to cut back on salt because it is hidden in everyday products such as bead, canned soup and baked beans.”

The Food and Drink Federation disputed the claims, calling them “out of date, out of touch and based on self-selecting surveys”.

Deputy director general of the FDF, Martin Paterson, said: “UK bread manufacturers have for example reduced salt across the product range by a quarter since the 1980’s which has included reductions confirmed in a recent Food Standards Agency (FSA) survey of breads.

“FDF is currently working with the FSA to identify more products where reductions in salt have been achieved, and might be further reduced.”

The FDF said that UK food and drink manufacturers are committed to encouraging consumers of all ages to improve their own health through a balanced diet.