Many meat-free burgers, sausages and mince are exceeding maximum recommended salt levels and are actually worse health-wise compared to their meat equivalents, research by Action on Salt has found.
On average, beef burgers from retailers such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda contained 0.75g of salt per serving. Their meat-free counterparts, however, weighed in at 0.89g, which is saltier than a portion of salt and vinegar crisps.
Overall, 28% of all products surveyed were higher in salt than PHE’s voluntary salt targets, which were due to be met by December last year.
The saltiest products – Tofurky’s Deli Slices Hickory Smoked and Tesco’s Meat Free Bacon Style Rashers – both contain more salt per 100g than seawater, according to Action on Salt.
More salt than McDonald’s fries
For the survey, 157 meat alternatives from supermarkets were examined. The highest average salt content per 100g was found in meat-free bacon and meat-free sliced meat.
When it came to salt content per portion size, however, vegetarian Kievs were number one, containing more salt than a large portion of McDonald’s fries. Plain meat-free pieces and fillets, meanwhile, were as salty as three portions of salted peanuts.
PHE's salt targets
- Plain meat alternatives like mince and fillets: 0.63g of salt per 100g
- Meat-free products including sausages, burgers, bites, pies and sliced ‘meats’: 1.25g of salt per 100g
- Meat-free bacon: 1.88g of salt per 100g
Last year, Action on Salt highlighted how vegetarian sausages have as much salt as the saltiest meat sausages. Quorn’s four Best of British Sausages remain the saltiest vegetarian bangers available, providing more than 2g of salt per pair.
Around a fifth of products examined had no portion size as well as no pack colour-coded labelling, making it hard for consumers to gauge contribution to daily salt intake.
Most meat-free categories had at least a 50% difference in salt content between the saltiest and least salty products – meat-free mince had the biggest variation with an 83% difference. This indicates that is it possible for manufactures to make products with less salt, though there was no analysis of how flavour was impacted.
Action on Salt found Naturli plant-based mince had six times the salt content of Tesco’s meat-free mince, while Linda McCartney’s two vegetarian pulled pork burgers had two and half times more salt than Asda’s beef-style quarter pounders.
Taking a stance that rows against the tide, Action on Salt recommended manufacturers focus on natural protein ingredients such as lentils, beans, eggs, cheese or plain tofu, instead of relying on processed vegetarian alternatives to meat.
Mhairi Brown, nutritionist at Action on Salt, said: “Research has highlighted that we must reduce the amount of meat we eat to reduce the negative impact of climate change. The food industry have ensured greater availability of meat-free alternatives, but now they must do more to ensure that meat-free alternatives contain far less salt – at the very least lower than their meat equivalents. This survey drives home the urgent need for Public Health England to reinvigorate the UK’s salt reduction strategy.”
Action on Salt said the PHE had taken little action since assuming responsibility for the UK’s salt reduction programme, with no announcement of salt reduction plans for 2018 and beyond, even though the UK’s salt intake is much higher than the recommended daily limit of 6g per day.
Graham MacGregor, professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Salt, added: “Reducing salt is the most cost-effective measure to reduce the number of people dying or suffering from entirely unnecessary strokes and heart disease. Given the vast amounts of strokes and heart disease that could be avoided and huge savings to the NHS, it is incomprehensible that Public Health England are not doing more to reduce the amount of salt in our food. We are again calling on PHE to take urgent action.”