Health campaigners call for ‘honest’ labelling on so-called healthy snacks

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/sanjagrujic
Image: Getty/sanjagrujic

Related tags: Snack, Snack bars, healthy snacking, Healthy snacks, Salt, Sodium

Researchers at Action on Salt are demanding a restriction on the use of what it calls misleading nutrition claims on HFSS products after its new data revealed seemingly ‘healthy’ snacks contain often higher salt levels than crisps and flavoured nuts.

The group analysed 118 snacks including dried/roasted pulses and processed pulse snacks such as lentil curls, chickpea chips and puffs, ​which are often perceived as healthy alternatives to the usual snacking options such as crisps and flavoured nuts.

Despite these products being on average lower in fat, saturated fat and calories, and higher in fibre compared to standard crisps and nuts, over one in three (43%) contained more than 1.5g/100g of salt – often more than that in crisps and nuts. KP salted peanuts contain 1.3g/100g salt, while Walkers Ready Salted crisps contain 0.35g of salt in a 25g bag.

Dried/roasted pulses, corn style snacks were on average the saltiest at 1.85g/100g. The saltiest dried pulse snacks surveyed were Love Corn Salt & Vinegar ​and Love Corn Habanero Chilli​, with 2.8g/100g salt. Just one 45g serve of either of these snacks (1.3g salt) would provide over a fifth of a person’s maximum daily salt intake and more salt than 3.5 bags of Walkers Ready Salted crisps, the group said. UK adults are recommended to eat no more than 6g of salt a day.

Health halo

Despite more than half (56%) of the products surveyed being high in fat, salt and/or sugar most did not display colour coded nutrition information on front of pack as per voluntary Government guidance.

Instead, most featured on-pack nutrition claims, which according to Action on Salt mislead consumers by creating a distorted ‘health halo’ that discourages shoppers from scrutinising the ingredients more thoroughly. For example, the saltiest snack surveyed, Eat Real Hummus Chilli & Lemon Flavoured Chips​ contained 3.6g salt/100g, with the front of pack stating ‘40% less fat, Vegan, Gluten free’.

Over 80% of snacks surveyed included a nutrient based claim on pack (e.g. ‘x kcal per serving’ ‘Less fat’, ‘No added sugar’, ‘Source/High in fibre/protein’), and almost all (93%) included claims such as ‘Gluten free’, ‘Vegan’, ‘All natural’ and ‘No artificial preservatives’.

One in three snacks surveyed specified the use of sea salt, which despite is crunchier texture and stronger flavour, generally contains the same levels of sodium and nutritional value as table salt.

‘The use of nutrition claims on HFSS foods need to be questioned’

The group called on Government to appoint a successor to Public Health England to help bring down salt levels across all food and said its research raised serious health concerns especially given reports of increased snacking during 2020 compared to pre-COVID. It called salt a ‘forgotten ingredient that raises our blood pressure and puts us at an increased risk of strokes and heart attacks’.  

Sonia Pombo, Campaign Manager at Action on Salt said: “We should all be eating more beans and pulses, but there are better ways of doing it, and eating processed snacks high in salt is not one of them. This important survey has put a spotlight on the unnecessary amounts of salt in ‘healthy’ snacks, and the use of nutrition claims on HFSS foods need to be questioned. Instead of misleading their customers, companies should be doing all they can to help us all make more informed decisions, including using front of pack colour coded labels.”

Professor Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chairman of Action on Salt added: “It’s a disgrace that food companies continue to fill our food with so much salt – especially those enticing consumers into purchasing these so-called ‘healthy’ snacks, when they are the exact opposite.”

The European Snacks Association defended the sector’s achievements in innovation and product reformulation. Its director general Sebastian Emig said: "Food and drink labelling both in Europe and in the UK is tightly regulated, including nutrition claims, and companies have a legal obligation to tell their customers what is in their food. Ingredients list and nutrition information are both provided on pack. A vast majority of companies go beyond this legal obligation to voluntarily provide clear, simple nutrition information on the front of pack."

Eat Real told us that since its aquisition by Vibrant Foods/Exponent last year a key focus for the business has been working on formulations to reduce salt content for this product and the others in the portfolio. 

“As a company we’re always striving to create healthier and tastier snacks. And while we’re proud of the progress made so far, we’re also aware that we can do more,” ​a spokesperson said.

“Eat Real is rooted in a mission to make snacks using real, natural ingredients. We remain totally focused in ensuring our snacks are as healthy as possible, including keeping salt levels down. And we’ve made real progress. We’ve already lowered the salt content of our Chilli & Lemon Hummus Chips, as referenced in the article, by nearly 41% which will be reflected in new packaging soon. We’re introducing four new products in August that will demonstrate our ultimate ambition to be a fully non-HFSS brand.  We’re determined to keep leading the health conversation, and to continue delivering on our promise of real taste, real nutrition and real ingredients.”

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