Action on Salt surveyed 556 chilled sliced meat products available from UK major retailers Asda, Co-op, Iceland, Marks & Spencer’s, Morrison’s, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.
Food manufacturers performed worse than private label, according to the research, with only one in three (37%) of their chilled sliced meat products achieving their respective salt targets, compared to two in three (69%) of retailer’s own label products. Tesco led the retailers in compliance with the targets compared to Waitrose which was falling far behind (97% vs 7% respectively), the group said.
Of all products surveyed, the average salt content was 2.1g/100g, meaning nearly two thirds (65%) were considered high in salt.
‘Reduced salt levels are achievable even in the most challenging of products’
Many chilled sliced meat products with the highest overall salt content are exempt from the UK’s voluntary salt targets. These are predominantly charcuterie meats (e.g. prosciutto, chorizo etc) and traditionally cured hams (e.g. Wiltshire cured ham) – all of which still vary in salt content. For example, Sainsbury's Italian Prosciutto Crudo had 5.51g of salt per 100g (more than twice the concentration of seawater), compared to Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Italian Prosciutto Di Speck, which contains 30% less salt at 3.89g/100g. According to Action on Salt, this demonstrates that vastly reduced levels of salt are achievable, even in the most challenging of products.
What’s more, the salt content varied from 0.26 – 6.0g/100g across all surveyed products. There was also a wide variation across each of the different types of chilled sliced meat. For example, within poultry products there is a difference of 2.24g salt between the least salty (Aldi’s Flame Grilled Chicken Slices at 0.26g/100g) and the saltiest product (Adlington Cooked Sliced Free Range British Turkey at 2.5g/100g).
The group called for mandated salt reduction targets for all products containing added salt to be enforced (and reviewed regularly) by the government. It said this would ensure that all manufacturers and retailers meet both the current and future targets, creating a much-needed level playing field. Failure to comply should be penalised, it said.
Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London, and Chairman of Action on Salt, said: “Reducing salt is the most cost-effective measure to lower blood pressure and reduce the number of people suffering from strokes and heart disease and life changing disabilities associated with this – all of which is completely avoidable. It’s a disgrace that food companies continue to fill our food with so much salt when there is the option to reformulate, which our research shows can easily be done. The Government needs to force the industry to comply, to ensure that many thousands of people don’t die unnecessarily."
A Tesco spokesperson said: "The health of our customers is very important to us and we’ve worked hard to reduce salt across our own brand foods. At Tesco we have been reformulating our products for some time and we will continue to do so without compromising on taste or quality. Our reformulation plan looks at a wide variety of nutrients and ingredients important to supporting a healthy diet, including salt."
Emma Williams, Partner & Health Manager at Waitrose added: “We know we have more to do on salt reduction in this area and are actively working to meet the 2024 targets set by Public Health England, making sure any changes do not compromise on taste or quality. Our products have traffic light labelling which is based on realistic portion sizes to allow our customers to make informed choices."
Miranda Shelley, Lidl GB Nutrition Team Manager, said: "Lidl are continuously reviewing the salt content of its cooked sliced meat to reduce the levels where possible, whilst ensuring the foods are of the highest quality, safe to consume, and with an appropriate shelf life. This category is very challenging to reduce salt given the preservative function it provides, and so a gradual reduction to align with technical developments is often necessary."
M&S's senior nutritionist, Rebecca Brown, said the retailer had reformulated some of its products just this month to reduce their salt content. She added that M&S was committed to delivering further salt reductions to meet the UK's 2024 salt targets.
“In January 2022, as part of the M&S salt reduction programme, we re-launched 7 products in the M&S British Outdoor Bred cooked sliced meat range achieving an 18% average salt reduction; these products now meet their respective 2024 salt targets set by the UK Department of Health. The reduction in salt was achieved through revising the recipe, whilst maintaining product quality and taste.”