More than 40,000 Britons are dying unnecessarily every year because of high levels of salt and fat in their diets, the Government's public health watchdog Nice has warned.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) says that unhealthy foods have wreaked a "terrible toll of ill health" on the nation and placed a "substantial" strain on the economy.
For the first time, the organisation publishes landmark guidance on how to prevent the "huge number of unnecessary deaths" from conditions such as heart disease that are linked to the consumption of ready meals and processed food.
It calls for sweeping changes to food production and government policy to encourage lifestyle changes, and to reduce significantly the amount of salt and saturated fat the nation consumes.
It says "toxic" artificial fats known as trans fats, which have no nutritional value and are linked to heart disease, should be banned. The organisation says that ministers should consider introducing legislation if food manufacturers failed to make their products healthier.
Nice says it has brought together all the available evidence to illustrate the link between unhealthy food and public health, partly in response to increasing concern about obesity in Britain, particularly among children.
It says there are about five million people in the country suffering the effects of cardiovascular disease -- a "largely avoidable" condition that includes heart attacks, heart disease and stroke -- and that it causes 150,000 deaths annually. Nice says 40,000 of these deaths could be prevented, and hundreds of millions of pounds saved, if its measures were introduced.
The guidance, which was commissioned by the Department of Health, also recommends that:
• Low-salt and low-fat foods should be sold more cheaply than their unhealthy counterparts, through the use of subsidies if necessary;
• Advertising of unhealthy foods should be banned until after 9pm and planning laws should be used to restrict the number of fast food outlets, especially near schools;
• The Common Agricultural Policy should focus more on public health, ensuring farmers are paid to produce healthier foods;
• Action should also be taken to introduce a "traffic light" food labelling system, even though the European Parliament recently voted against this;
• Local authorities must act to encourage walking and cycling and public sector caterers must provide healthier meals;
• All lobbying of the Government and its agencies by the food and drink industry should be fully disclosed.