Revelations that salt levels in leading pesto brand Sacla have increased by almost 20% have led Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) to claim its makers have done so “despite warnings that salt damages health”.
In spite of efforts by “some responsible companies” such as Waitrose and Sainsbury’s in reducing its pesto salt levels the group warned: “Time is running out for food industry; with less than three months to go, CASH calls for Public Health England to get tough on enforcing the 2017 salt targets.”
Industry body Food and Drink Federation (FDF) responded by saying that “Pesto sauces are made to a variety of recipes."
Parmesan the culprit
“One of the reasons for differing levels of salt found in pesto sauces can be attributed to the varying levels of parmesan or other hard cheeses used, which are often a primary ingredient and also a key source of salt.
"Parmesan is a 'protected destination of origin' (PDO) which limits the potential for these products to be reformulated."
The spokeswoman added that on average FDF members had reduced the salt in their products by 8% under the government's Responsibility Deal.
This built on previous voluntary action by companies, which helped to reduce adult intakes of salt by 11% between 2005/6 and 2014.
She added that far from sitting back, food producers continued to invest heavily to adapt the recipes of some brands to voluntarily reduce levels of salt in their products, without compromising on taste, quality or safety.
“In addition to salt, UK food and drink producers continue to look for and develop opportunities to reduce calories, sugars and fats, while boosting fibre and micronutrients to contribute to an overall holistic approach to public health.
“Most ingredients in a food perform a wide range of functions, and go well beyond adding flavour, such as providing texture or shelf-life.”
CASH’s study revealed that Sacla’s Italia Organic Vegetarian Pesto No.5 Basil and Italia Pesto No.1 Classic Basil both contained 3.30 g salt per 100 g, an 18% increase compared to the last time the products were inspected in 2009.
Other brands that did not fare well include Napolina Green Pesto with Basil (2.50 g per 100 g / per portion not available), Gino D'Acampo Pesto alla Genovese Basil Pesto (2.30 g per 100 g / per portion not available) and Truly Italian Genovese Basil Pesto (2 g per 100 g / 1.40 g per portion).
None of the branded pesto products had the Department of Health’s recommended colour-coded front of pack nutrition label, despite the high salt levels.
Professor Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of CASH, described the findings as a “national scandal”.
“We know we can save thousands of people from unnecessary strokes and heart attacks if population salt intake is reduced, and furthermore, it is the most cost effective health policy.”
“The UK was leading the world in salt reduction, but so far PHE is doing little to ensure that the 2017 salt targets are met, and has not confirmed that they are setting new targets to be achieved by 2020.
Commenting on the absence of colour-coded front of pack nutrition labels, Sarah Alderton, assistant nutritionist at CASH said that people might not realise just how salty pesto can be.
“That’s why it’s important to check the label,” she said. “Switching from a high to lower salt option could really help to reduce your salt intake.
“However, given the inconsistent nature of food labelling this is difficult to do. None of the products we surveyed could be described as ‘healthy’, so consider having pesto in smaller portions, less frequently, or try other pasta sauces lower in salt and fat instead.”