Salt scrutiny: researchers call on PHE to get tough on targets for Chinese ready meals

Some supermarket dishes contain more salt than three McDonald’s burgers, an Action on Salt survey has found.

13 March 2018
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A health warning should be put on the packaging and menus for Chinese ready meals and takeaways, according to Action on Salt.

To mark the start of Salt Awareness Week, the group examined the salt content of popular Chinese meals. And the results were not good.

As a result, they are calling on Public Health England to set new salt targets and make front-of-pack labelling mandatory, including putting warning labels on dishes high in salt.

In the US, the New York City Board of Health requires chain restaurants to put warning labels on high salt dishes, while Chile’s Ministry of Health places warning labels on all high salt, sugar and saturated fat products sold in supermarkets.

“Considering how many millions of takeaways and ready meals are eaten in the UK each week, the food industry must be held to account, with new salt targets set by the government to ensure the salt content of these meals is reduced to much lower levels and fast,” said Sarah Alderton, assistant nutritionist at Action on Salt. 

“If the food industry don’t comply, they should be made mandatory.”

Salty supermarket meals

The NHS recommends that adults should eat no more than 6g of salt a day (2.4g sodium) – that's around one teaspoon. Yet some Chinese meals are providing that daily amount in one sitting.

Winning (or should that be losing?) for saltiest offering was Iceland’s Slimming World’s Chinese Style Banquet Rice with 4.40g salt per 550g pack, which is more salt than two store-bought Pizza Express Margherita Pizzas.

Next in line was the Marks & Spencer Crispy Sweet and Sour Chicken Banquet with 4.13g salt per 500g pack, providing over two thirds of an adult’s maximum daily intake and the same as scoffing more than three McDonald’s hamburgers.

The least salty meal was Tesco’s Vegetable Chow Mein (0.40g per 120g portion), followed by Sainsbury’s Sweet & Sour Chicken (0.53g per 175g portion).

Of the 141 ready meals surveyed, nearly half were high in salt (containing over 1.5g/100g or 1.8g per portion) and would receive a red label if front-of-pack warnings were enforced.

Last year, the FSA released UK-wide salt-reduction targets for a range of foods. For ready meals, the average target was 0.63g salt per 100g and the maximum target was 0.95g of salt per 100g. The survey revealed these targets aren’t being met in a lot of cases.

On average, people in the UK consume one ready meal a week, with Brits forking out more than £3.3bn last year. And as Kantar Worldpanel data shows, Chinese made up £325.8m of that total category value, topped only by English, Italian and Indian.


High salt ready meals:

  • Waitrose’s Chinese Chicken Chow Mein with 3.80g salt per 400g pack
  • Iceland Luxury Szechuan Prawns & Jasmine Rice with 3.80g salt per 450g
  • The Co-op’s Chicken Chow Mein with 3.42g salt per 450g

Low salt ready meals:

  • Tesco Crispy Lemon Chicken with 0.60g salt per 350g
  • Tesco Sweet Sour Chicken with Egg Fried Rice with 1.10g salt per 450g
  • Iceland Sweet & Sour Chicken with Rice with 1.30g salt per 500g

Sides and sauces

But it wasn’t just ready meals that were overloaded with salt, with sides and sauces also coming under scrutiny.

Iceland’s Takeaway Egg Fried Rice has a 4.1g salt per 350g pack – more salt than 11 bags of ready salted crisps.

Soy sauces were on average five times saltier than seawater, and incorporating sides and dipping sauces to a meal could provide a person with nearly 4g of salt per person alone.

The survey found two Asda Hoisin Duck Spring Rolls and 15ml of Asda Dark Soy Sauce contained 3.82g salt – more salt than nine servings of peanuts.

Sonia Pombo, campaign manager at Action on Salt, said food can be easily reformulated with lower levels.

“The lack of front-of-pack colour-coded labelling on branded products makes it incredibly difficult for consumers to make healthier choices and that is simply unacceptable,” she added.


Salty sides:

  • M&S Prawn Crackers with 1.10g salt per 50g pack
  • Morrisons Crackers Prawn with 2g salt per 80g pack
  • Sainsbury's Prawn Crackers 1.38g salt per 80g pack

Not-so-salty sides:

  • Tesco's Egg Fried Rice 250g with 0.10g salt per 250g pack
  • M&S Singapore Rice Noodles with 0.70g salt per 300g pack
  • M&S Chilli & Coriander Noodles with 0.90g salt per 300g pack

Taking away salt?

There are also 22 million takeaways eaten each week in the UK, with the most popular choice being Chinese.

An analysis of Chinese takeaway meals purchased from six independent restaurants in London’s Chinatown district revealed, 97% contained a hefty 2g of salt or more per dish.

Over half contained more than 3g of salt per dish, which is half an adult’s maximum recommended daily intake. Combining side dishes would consequently provide far more than is advisable for the whole day.

Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London, said salt is the forgotten killer, as it puts up our blood pressure, leading to tens of thousands of unnecessary strokes, heart failure and heart attacks every year.

“Reducing salt is the most cost effective measure to reduce the number of people dying or suffering from strokes or heart disease,” he said.

With the PHE recently revealing a new calorie strategy, it will be interesting to see if there will be a renewed push to target salty foods.

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