Many ‘healthy’ sounding plant-based and vegan meals served at UK restaurants, fast food and coffee chains, contain ‘staggering’ salt levels, a survey from campaign group Action on Salt found.
Three out of five plant-based restaurant meals surveyed with nutrition information (96/151) contained 3g or more salt – half of an adult’s maximum daily intake of salt – while 19 had 6g or more salt – an adult’s entire maximum daily limit in just one meal.
Some meals in the out-of-home sector contain more salt than eight McDonald’s Hamburgers, said the research. Nearly half (45%) of meals eaten out of the home contain 3g or more salt in just a single meal – that’s half the maximum daily limit for an adult. Additionally, over one in five dishes provide more than half an adult’s maximum daily recommendation for saturated fat.
Action on Salt called on the Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, to implement and enforce more robust salt reduction targets in order to create a fair and level playing field across both the retail and eating out sectors. If these restaurant chains were to display colour-coded nutrition information on their menus like packaged food in supermarkets, more than four out of five (127/151) plant-based meals would have a red label for high salt content (i.e. >1.8g salt in a meal), it said.
Sonia Pombo, Campaign Manager for Action on Salt said: “This survey highlights that some restaurants are always looking for new ways to produce unhealthy dishes, this time hidden under a vegan health halo, but continuing to drown us in salt and saturated fat just the same. Eating a more plant-based diet can and should be beneficial for a number of reasons, but whether you are looking to eat less meat for animal welfare, sustainability or health reasons, it is important to know a ‘plant-based’ or ‘vegan’ label does not automatically qualify a product as healthy. It is time for restaurants and cafes to step up and start making food that is healthy for us and better for the planet.”
Prepare for a plant-based backlash across the whole industry?
While the survey by Action on Salt exposed that the eating out sector lags far behind the food sold in supermarkets, the whole food sector is exposed to a potential backlash regarding its health credentials, warned Amirah Ashouri, a director at Cubo, which specializes in advising food and beverage companies about innovation and NPD.
Numerous studies have shown that the main driver for flexitarianism is health, she told FoodNavigator, but there is definitely a lot of confusion as to what ‘healthy’ really is among consumers.
“Many consumers believe that any plant-based alternative is better than its meat/dairy counterpart. Many plant-based products have a very long ingredient declaration, most of which are unrecognizable to the average consumer. Take vegan cheese – modified potato starch, tricalcium citrate, sodium lactate to name but a few. If we compare that to dairy-based cheese – the only ingredient is milk. For day to day products, I expect there will be a backlash. We can’t ignore the importance of clean label and we haven’t even touched on the differences in nutritionals.”
She suggested that food industry R&D take inspiration from a wider range of cuisines in order to better square the circle of taste and health. Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, South Indian and Mexican cuisines all heavily rely on plant-based proteins, she pointed out.
“If you’re innovating within the plant-based arena, don’t make compromises on health and nutritionals. Develop products which hero ingredients that consumers understand and be brave when it comes to flavours,” she added, citing UK brand Bol as one that ‘has done a great job at making vegetables the hero’. “Take their Thai Panang Coconut Curry. It’s full of brightly coloured ingredients that you can recognize and it doesn’t feel like you’re making a compromise. There is no talk of ‘meat alternatives’ – it’s just 100% plant-powered. It includes 2 of your 5-a-day and is a source of protein. It makes use of bold flavours but puts health at the forefront.”
Examples of Salty Meals
- Papa John’s Vegan American Hot Medium Pizza, 9.28g salt - more salt than 7 McDonald’s Hamburgers
- Loch Fyne Spiced Roasted Cauliflower & Squash Goan Curry 8.65g salt – saltier than 19 anchovies
- Bella Italia Vegan Cheese Pizza 8.1g salt – saltier than 23 bags of ready salted crisps
- Chiquitos Vegarrito 7.89g salt
- Slug and Lettuce Louisiana Chick’n Vegan Meat-less Burger 7.6g salt
- Wasabi Pumpkin Katsu Curry Yakisoba 10.3g salt – saltier than 8 McDonald’s Hamburgers
- Wasabi Veg Tanmen Soup 9.7g salt – saltier than 21 anchovy fillets
- EAT 3 Bean, Smoked Chili and Tomato 5g salt – saltier than 14 bags of ready salted crisps
- Abokado THIS Vegan Katsu Curry (with sauce) 4.6g salt
- Cojean Vegetable Gyoza Miso Soup 4.3g salt
Clare Thornton-Wood, a dietitian and spokeswoman for trade body the British Dietetic Association, added: "The sector is certainly growing and If consumers become aware of the high salt levels they may choose lower salt options if available; this is a good thing and I think overall unlikely to dampen the current enthusiasm for plant based eating. However, this information is generally not listed on menus and so many consumers will remain blissfully unaware of the high salt levels unless they begin looking very hard, perhaps checking online.
"The industry as a whole could consider giving consumers more information by adding the salt content of meals to the menu and reformulating as much as possible to reduce salt. The clever use of herbs and spices can reduce the need for lots of salt."