Salt campaigners in the UK are demanding immediate compulsory front of pack nutritional labelling on all picnic savoury snacks and for bold and comprehensive salt reduction targets to be set in 2020 after discovering that one in four savoury picnic foods -- including vegetarian and vegan options -- are dangerously high in salt.
A nationwide survey from Action on Salt analysed 555 savoury picnic finger foods available from UK retailers to reveal what it called worrying levels of salt. The food content of a ‘typical’ picnic basket could contain more than 5g of salt, it said.
It said that while vegetarian products were lower in saturated fat, “their health halo is concealing lots of salt”. The survey revealed that some vegan products were saltier than their meat-containing equivalents. For example, the saltiest sausage roll was Fry's Sausage Roll 80g – a vegan brand with 1.8g salt per 100g. Fry's Spicy 3 Bean Pasty (200g), had 1.8g per portion -- the same amount of salt in a McDonald’s hamburger and fries.
“It's great there are more meat alternative options out there, and we should all be making more of an effort to reduce meat consumption,” said Sonia Pombo, Campaign Lead for Action on Salt. “But meat alternatives aren’t always healthy as people may assume. Essentially, they are still processed foods with added salt, which can damage our health. We should all follow the same process in looking at the labels, and opting for healthier alternatives.
“The food industry has ensured greater availability of meat-free alternatives, but now they must do more to ensure that meat free alternatives contain far less salt - at the very least lower than their meat equivalents.”
The saltiest products named and shamed
It was no surprise that olives are salty, said the group. But it described the salt content of certain products as ‘appalling’. Aldi Specially Selected Hand Stuffed Halkidiki Olives (150g) were found have 5g of salt per 100g, which is double the salt concentration of seawater and 1.9g of salt per portion: a third of an adult’s daily-recommended limit of salt in just five olives. Marks & Spencer Stone in Full Bodied Greek Kalamata Olives (260g) contained what Action on Salt described as a ‘shocking’ 4.23g of salt per suggested 130g portion.
In comparison, Scotch eggs, with an average salt content of 0.76g/100g and quiche, with an average salt content of 0.54g/100g, were the lowest salt categories.
But surely consumers expect picnic snacks to be salty?
Responding to the suggestion that consumers who buy picnic items are not doing so to be healthy and are thus fully aware of the high salt content, Pombo told FoodNavigator: “Whilst having a picnic is considered a treat -- it’s possible to consume a massive 5g of salt alone by eating picnic food in addition to other salty products eaten that day. Furthermore, these products aren't solely consumed at picnics – they have substantial presence in supermarket aisles all year round."
The survey drives home the urgent need for Public Health England (PHE) to reinvigorate the UK’s salt reduction strategy, said Salt on Action.
A study published last month suggested that declines in salt consumption in England have slowed since a 2011 shift in government policy gave greater freedom to the food industry to set and monitor targets for curbing salt intake.
"We want to see the food industry disclosing colour coded nutritional information clearly front of pack on all products so everyone can easily find healthier options - especially given the huge variation in the salt content of certain products,” said Pombo. “This is key for helping consumers tell at a glance what is high in fat, salt and sugar. By doing so, the hope is manufacturers producing HFSS products will reformulate and improve the health of the nation.”
Salt targets ‘not being met’
The survey found a ‘staggering’ half of products were higher in salt than their average salt targets set by PHE and 17% had more salt than their maximum target. These included:
- Higgidy Bold & Earthy Spinach, Feta & Roasted Tomato Quiche 155g – 0.89g/100g (max salt target: 0.68g/100g)
- Waitrose & Partners Spanish Style Chicken Kebabs 80g – 0.95g/100g (max salt target: 0.88g/100g)
- Pork Farms Original Medium Pork Pie – 1.32g/100g (max salt target: 1g/100g)
Action on Salt complained that over the last two years, PHE and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) have taken little action to encourage the food industry to meet the 2017 targets.
Following the release of the Health Minister’s Green Paper last month, it now wants ‘bold and comprehensive salt reduction targets to be set in 2020’ to ensure the 2017 targets are met and the proposed 2020 salt reduction targets strictly monitored.
‘Reformulation is easily achievable’
There was also a significant variation in the salt content of all product categories surveyed showing reformulation is easily achievable, according to the group.
For example, the research discovered up to 3.5 times more salt in near identical products sold by different retailers.
Nearly half of products surveyed were also worryingly high in saturated fat, said the campaign group. Morrisons Cheese & Onion Slices (330g) were found to contain 17.7g of saturated fat per portion – almost a woman’s recommended daily limit of saturated fat.
Front of pack labelling
The research discovered that almost one in three products had no colour-coded front of pack (FOP) labelling. Of those products without FOP labelling, more than 40% are high in salt – many of which are olive products which do not currently have a specific salt target set by PHE.
Action of Salt said it was therefore imperative that the 2023 targets be comprehensive with clear definitions of the products each target covers.
Mhairi Brown, nutritionist at Action on Salt, said: “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.” She called on food manufacturers to get on board in 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.”
Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chair of Action on Salt, added: “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.
“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.”