Free-from foods packed with salt, CASH finds

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Gluten-free diet, Coeliac disease, Gluten

A survey of UK supermarkets’ own-brand gluten-free, wheat-free and dairy-free foods has found more than half had higher salt levels than standard versions, raising concern for the intake levels of coeliacs and others who avoid certain foods.

There is a major drive to decrease levels of salt in packaged and processed foods, as part of efforts to reduce salt consumption to no more than 6g per day (for adults). High salt intake levels have been linked to increase risk of high blood pressure and stroke, yet much of the salt people eat is ‘hidden’ in ready-made foods, and consumers may not notice or know it is there.

The Food Standards Agency has set salt reduction for a number of food categories for 2010 and 2012. However the findings from the new survey by Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) indicate that free-from foods are being left out of salt reduction programmes.

This category of foods designed for people with coeliac disease (who are intolerance to the protein gluten), the lactose intolerant or those who, for other reasons, prefer to restrict consumption of gluten, wheat or dairy, is growing apace. According to Mintel the market saw sales growth of over 300 per cent between 2000 and 2006.

But while many of the adherents to free-from diets have health at the front of their minds, if they buy own-brand free-from goods they may inadvertently be compromising their cardiovascular health.

The survey

The survey looked at 71 supermarket own-label products in free-from ranges, including breads, burgers, cakes, comminuted meat, fruit pies and pastry desserts, sweet biscuits, ready meals and sponge puddings. The salt content per portion and per 100g was compared to the salt content for the same retailer’s standard product.

Forty of the products (56.3 per cent) were seen to have higher salt levels than the standard products of comparison. Only 19 products (26.7 per cent) had lower salt levels.

The worst offenders were seen to be Sainsbury’s Free From Jaffa Cakes, which had 0.67g per 100g – more than six times the level in the level in standard Sainsbury’s own brand Jaffa Cakes.

Another high scorer was Asda’s Double Chocolate Muffins, where the free-from version had 1g of salt per 10g and the standard version 0.3g.

“Interestingly, some of the free-from products we surveyed had lower levels of salt than their standard counterparts, which shows that there is no technical reason why free-from products have to have higher salt levels,”​ said Katharine Jenner, nutritionist and CASH campaign manager.

Coeliac response

The charity Coeliac UK said: “These are very interesting results and we will be looking at the findings closely to compare them with the research we did in this area a few years ago.

“The free-from market has expanded significantly over recent years, which is great news for the increasing number of people with coeliac disease who have to maintain a strict life-long gluten-free diet.

“However, it is important that manufacturers do pay attention to all issues surrounding health including salt levels and if we identify areas of real concern we will discuss this with the manufacturers of gluten-free foods that supply the coeliac community.”

Brands vs own label

A spokesperson for CASH told FoodNavigator.com that the organization started out looking at branded free-from products, but it was hard to find a fair comparison as the same companies do not tend to offer both free-from and conventional versions.

“With the own-labels we could look at the free-from and the standard and make a clear comparison between them.”

Sainsbury's said in a statement: "We take salt reduction very seriously, and are actively working on reducing the salt levels in our free-from range.

"As of January 2010 all Sainsbury's 'free-from' products will meet the FSA's 2010 or 2012 salt targets and will be nutritionally comparable to the equivalent products in our main ranges."

The CASH spokesperson said the organisation may look at branded products in the future if Sainsbury’s does what it says it will for its free-from products.

“That would leave the branded products exposed to scrutiny.”

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