The United Nations needs to make reducing salt content in foods a worldwide priority to improve global public health, said British researchers in a new report.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, researchers said there are enormous health benefits associated with a cut in salt consumption. In fact, scientists believe a 15 percent reduction could save about 8.5 million lives across the globe in the next decade.
The report said that cutting salt consumption by a third in the U.S. alone could save up to $24 billion in healthcare costs.
"This represents a $6 to $12 return on investment for each dollar spent on regulatory programs," the researchers said.
"Cost savings are also estimated for a reduction in salt intake of 15 percent in low- and middle-income countries, with 13.8 million deaths averted over 10 years at an initial cost of less than $0.40 per person per year," researchers wrote.
High salt intake can lead to stiffened blood vessels, reduced kidney function and extra fluid retention in the circulatory system. For years, the medical community has acknowledge for the link between salt consumption and high blood pressure, which can cause cardiovascular disease.
Although no randomized trials have been conducted yet, the report said cohort studies have shown that a 5 gram reduction in salt intake per day can lower the risk for both cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Tthe World Health Organization has set a worldwide target of less than 5 grams of consumed salt per person each day by 2015.
The report targeted the food industry in particular, which has been reluctant to decrease the salt content in certain food items.
Francisco Cappucio, co-author of the study, told BBC News that the industry has a responsibility to take action on the issue.
"The reformulation of food in their hands could deliver a massive impact to public health in the same way that at the moment it is contributing to a huge burden of disease," he said.
Cappucio argued that consumers' taste buds have been trained by habit to crave salt, but the "vicious cycle" can be reversed if consumers gradually wean themselves off of sodium, he said.
Some countries -- such as Finland and Japan -- have already created public health initiatives aimed at lowering how much salt consumers eat. As a result, the report said, those countries have seen lower rates of coronary heart disease and stroke among their populations.
The Finnish program began in the 1970s and focused on collaborating with the food industry to develop products with less salt. It also included an awareness campaign to alert the public to the health benefits associated with reduced dietary salt intake.
The report found that an initiative between the British government and its food industry resulted in the gradual decrease of between 5 percent and 15 percent of salt in processed foods -- without a noticeable change in flavor, sales or complaints about taste.
Heart disease and stroke are responsible for about 70 percent of deaths in developing countries, the report said.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.