Unpacking the picnic basket: what are the salt contents of common retail products?

Campaign group Action on Salt has looked at over 500 goods from sausage rolls to scotch eggs and is calling for reformulation and labelling reforms.

15 August 2019
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image credit: Getty Images

One in four savoury picnic foods are dangerously high in salt and almost half have concerning levels of saturated fat, research from health campaign group Action on Salt has found.

After analysing 555 savoury picnic foods commonly found in retailers, the group found that a typical picnic basket could contain more than 5g of salt, almost the recommended daily limit for an adult, which is 6g a day. Excessive salt consumption has serious health implications, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Olives were one of the big offenders. Aldi’s Specially Selected Hand Stuffed Halkidiki Olives had 5g of salt per 100g, which is double the salt concentration of seawater and 1.9g of salt per portion – amounting to a third of an adult’s daily recommended limit of salt in just five olives. Meanwhile, Marks & Spencer Stone in Full Bodied Greek Kalamata Olives contained 4.23g of salt per suggested 130g portion.

Other products that were brought under the salt spotlight for having high levels include a Ginsters Cornish Pasty with 2.99g of salt per portion, equivalent to seven portions of salted peanuts, and Aldi’s Eat & Go Sausages & Ketchup with 2.2g per portion, containing as much salt as 4.5 bags of ready salted crisps.

For those tossing up on a fast food fix, Fry's Spicy 3 Bean Pasty had 1.8g of salt per portion, which is the amount of salt in a McDonald’s burger and fries.

Healthier options included scotch eggs, with an average salt content of 0.76g/100g and quiche, with an average salt content of 0.54g/100g.

Almost one in three products, however, had no colour-coded front of pack labelling making it hard for consumers to find the healthier option, the research found, with 40% high enough in salt they would qualify for a red label.

Is the Government doing enough?

Action on Salt called for compulsory front of pack nutritional labelling on all food products and for comprehensive salt reduction targets to be set in 2020.

Its survey revealed half of the products were higher in salt than their average salt targets and 17% had more salt than their maximum target.

Examples included Higgidy’s Bold & Earthy Spinach, Feta & Roasted Tomato Quiche with 0.89g of salt per 100g, which has a max salt target of 0.68g per 100g, Waitrose’s Spanish Style Chicken Kebabs which contain 0.95g of salt per 100g when its target is 0.88g per 100g and Pork Farms Original Medium Pork Pie with 1.32g of salt per 100g, above its 1g per 100g target.

Public Health England issued guideline salt targets in 2014 for more than 80 categories of food, with the aim that they be met by 2017.

 “Due to inaction by the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England in enforcing the 2017 salt reduction targets, the public are still eating more salt than recommended which is leading to thousands dying or suffering from entirely unnecessary strokes and heart disease,” said Graham MacGregor, professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chair of Action on Salt.

“Reducing salt is one of the most cost-effective measures to protect health. The time has come for the Secretary of State for Health to resuscitate the UK’s salt reduction programme, helping us to, once again, be world leading rather than trailing behind the rest of the world. The public’s health has suffered long enough.”

Professor Louis Levy, head of nutrition science at PHE, told The Guardian: “Voluntary action by industry on salt reduction has helped reduce the nation’s salt intake by 11%, to 8g per day but our review last December shows a mixed bag across products, with only just over half of salt reduction targets met.

“We all have a role to play in eating a healthier diet, and it is clear that, with the right leadership from industry, further salt reduction in foods is still possible.”

But what role does industry have to play?

Products already on the market demonstrated that reformulation was possible, according to the group.

Gosh Mediterranean falafel with chickpea and parsley had 3.5 times more salt per 100g than Cauldron Middle Eastern falafels, while a Ginsters large sausage roll had twice as much salt per 100g than Aldi Everyday Essentials eight sausage rolls.

Meanwhile, the Marks & Spencer Just Add Chicken Tikka Mini Fillets had 3.5 times more salt per 100g compared to Asda Tandoori Chicken Breast Mini Fillets.

Concerns were also expressed as nearly half of products surveyed were worryingly high in saturated fat. Morrisons’ Cheese & Onion Slices contain 17.7g of saturated fat per portion – almost a woman’s recommended daily limit of saturated fat.

Next up, Asda’s Extra Special Maple Cured Smoked Bacon Quiche Lorraine with Butter Enriched Shortcrust Pastry consisted of 11g of saturated fat per 100g and 14g per portion– almost as much saturated fat as in five McDonald’s burgers.

Lower saturated fat versions are available including Asda’s Smartprice Cheese & Bacon Quiche with 7g/100g and almost half the amount of saturated fat per portion (9g) and at half the price of the ‘luxury’ product, this is a better buy for health, said the group.

“This survey highlights just how easy it is for consumers to unknowingly eat huge amounts of salt and saturated fat hidden in savoury snacks and picnic favourites,” commented Mhairi Brown, nutritionist at Action on Salt.

“Food manufacturers must get on board in our efforts to improve the nation’s health. We found a large variation in the salt content of product categories proving reformulation is easily achievable. We want to see the food industry disclosing nutritional information clearly on front of pack on all products so everyone can easily find healthier options.”

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