Have restaurant meals got saltier over the last four years?

Campaign group Action on Salt has investigated the children’s options at 26 chains and raised concerns that they are missing PHE targets.

5 March 2019
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image credit: Getty Images

Children’s meals in the casual dining sector are getting saltier, according to a new nationwide survey from health campaigners Action on Salt.

The group analysed 351 meals from 26 outlets, which included popular high street chains, fast food outlets and pubs. It found 41% (145 of the meals) contained more than 1.8g of salt per portion, exceeding the maximum set by Public Health England (PHE) in 2017.

Some of the meals investigated in 2019 were also included in a 2015 survey. A comparison showed 20% had no change in salt content and 40% had actually increased in salt. A further 39% had achieved a reduction in salt.

Meanwhile, 29% of the 218 meals analysed in 2015 had 2g of salt or more per portion, but the 2019 survey showed 37% of the 351 meals exceeded that threshold.

PHE recommends that children aged one to three ingest no more than 2g of salt a day, while those aged four to six should only consume 3g.

Most of the nutritional information for the survey was found online, but researchers said no data was available for Chiquito, Frankie & Benny’s, Giraffe and TGI Fridays, so three meals from each were sent for laboratory analysis.

Disagreements and reformulation

The top offender for the 2019 survey, according to Action on Salt, was TGI Friday’s, whose chicken burger, fries and baked beans contained 5.3g of salt per serve – almost as much as an adult’s recommended daily intake and the equivalent of 11 bags of salted crisps.

But a spokesperson for TGI Friday’s disputed the findings, saying an independent nutritional analysis had shown its children’s chicken burger meal contained 1.5g of salt, rather than the 5.3g cited in the report.

“This is all the more disappointing as we have long supported Government's salt reduction programme since 2012 with a focus on children's meals,” they said. “We will continue with our work on salt reduction across all our menus as well as other nutrients in support of the Government's ambition to tackle childhood obesity.”

Action on Salt also singled out Wetherspoon for its meal of fish, chips and baked beans, which contained 4.9g of salt, along with Chiquito’s quesadilla pizza with baked beans and GBK’s junior cheeseburger with skinny fries, which both included 4.3g of salt.

A Wetherspoon spokesperson said it would review its meals with a higher salt content, but noted it had several options that fall within the 1.8g salt target and parents can choose on behalf of their children. “We have also been working with our suppliers to reformulate and reduce salt in recipes across the children’s and adults’ menus,” he said.

Similar meals with a salty difference

When it comes to the variation in salt levels in meals of a similar type, the findings revealed a big difference, claimed Action on Salt.

For example, GBK’s junior chicken grilled burger with skinny fries contained 4.1g of salt – six times more than Leon’s mini chicken burger with fries.

When it came to a fish fingers meal with fries and baked beans, Hungry Horse scored 2.4g of salt in its meal, which was almost three times more than Brewers Fayre.

For bangers with mash, peas and gravy, Loch Fyne’s option racked up 3.5g of salt – twice as salty as the Brewers Fayre meal.

Zoe Davies, nutritionist for Action on Salt and FoodSwitch, called on operators to offer more information to allow parents to make informed choices.

“Many products in supermarkets display colour-coded front-of-pack nutrition labels which allows consumers to take personal responsibility and use apps, such as the free FoodSwitch app, to compare products and find the healthier option,” she said. “It’s time for the out-of-home sector to take responsibility and offer us the same level of information.”

Action on Salt has called for high-salt warning labels to be attached to children’s dishes that contain more than 1.8g of salt per serve – a measure that was introduced by New York City in 2015.

It’s not all bad news

Action on Salt did recognise some outlets for low-salt choices, including Slug and Lettuce’s fish and chips (0.3g of salt) and Ask Italian’s penne pasta in bolognese sauce (0.4g of salt).

It also highlighted Beefeater’s chicken curry with brown rice and veggie sticks, Subway’s Veggie Delite mini sub and Wagamama’s mini yasai chan han for all containing 0.5g of salt.

Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chair of Action on Salt, said long-awaited voluntary salt reductions plans were expected from the Secretary of State for Health as part of a green paper due to be released at Easter.

“Reducing salt is a shared responsibility between the food industry, individuals and the government and is the most cost-effective measure to reduce the number of people dying or suffering from entirely unnecessary strokes and heart disease,” he said.

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