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Hidden Salt in Processed Food

By WLR Staff, by John Litchfield

Health experts recommend that adults consume a maximum of 6g of salt a day. However, research shows that the average salt intake in the UK could be as high as 9.5g per day.

While we often only think of our salt intake in terms of how much we add to our plate at the dinner table, as much as 65-85% is hidden in processed food.

Recent research has shown that salt levels in different versions of the same foods can vary greatly, so with a little effort, salt intake can be reduced dramatically.

The Food Standards Agency recently conducted a survey to compare salt levels in 23 commonly bought products from 10 major retailers plus a branded version of each product.

The 23 items were products such as pizzas, beef burgers, tomato ketchup, ready meals, and digestive biscuits so that a reasonable idea of how much salt there is in an average shopping basket could be ascertained.

The agency found there were huge differences between many similar products. For example, Iceland Chicken Tikka Massala and Pilau Rice contained 0.4g of salt per 100g and 2g in a 500g packet, whereas the Waitrose equivalent contained nearly 0.9g salt per 100g and 4.4g in a 500g portion. Bearing in mind that your recommended daily amount is 6g, that’s 73% gone in just one meal.

Another product that varied significantly in salt levels was Baked Beans. Heinz Baked Beans contained the lowest salt level with 1.8g in a 200g tin. However, the same amount of Kwik Save, Somerfield or Morrisons beans would give you 3g of salt, so that’s half your recommended daily amount from just half of an average sized tin of beans.

Tomato based pasta sauces also had large differences in salt quantities. Marks and Spencer’s version contained by far the most at 2g per 100g, two and a half times the amount of the lowest in salt, Asda’s sauce with just 0.8 per 100g.

Here is a comparison of the lowest and highest salt versions of foods that might be eaten in an average day to see how much salt intake can vary depending on our shopping choices.

Foods Lowest in Salt

Meal Food Serving Salt
Breakfast Morrisons Crumpets 2 crumpets (82g) 1.1g
  I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter* 10g 0.2g
Lunch Heinz Baked Beans 200g 1.8g
  Sainsbury’s Medium Sliced white bread 2 slices (76g) 0.7g
  I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter* 10g 0.2g
Tea Iceland Chicken Tikka Massala with Pilau Rice 500g packet 2g
    Total 6g

Foods Highest in Salt

Meal Food Serving Salt
Breakfast Tesco Crumpets 2 crumpets (92g) 2.3g
  Co-op Buttery* 10g 0.2g
Lunch Kwik Save Baked Beans 200g 3g
  Co-op White Sliced Bread 2 slices (72g) 0.9g
  Co-op Buttery* 10g 0.2g
Tea Waitrose Chicken Tikka Massala with Pilau Rice 500g packet 4.4g
    Total 11g

*I can’t believe it’s not butter contains 1.5g salt per 100g. Co-op Buttery contains 2.0g per 100g, however the difference is not noticeable for a 10g serving.

So from this we can see that it is possible to have nearly twice your R.D.A from hidden salt without adding any extra at the table.

Finding low salt food

So how easy is it to pick out food products that are low in salt?

Unless a product is being sold with a nutritional claim such as low fat or high fibre, nutritional labelling is still voluntary in the UK so giving salt quantities is optional. Also, products often have sodium levels on the packaging, which can be misleading as this figure needs to be multiplied by 2.5 to give the amount of salt.

Of the 253 products sampled, 117 (47%) labelled both sodium and salt and 122 (49%) only labelled sodium. 4% did not label either.

Marks and Spencer were the most informative supermarket as they labelled all 23 items with both sodium and salt levels. Iceland only had 17 own brand products available for the survey, however, every one of them gave information for both sodium and salt. Asda was the worst for salt labelling as they only gave salt information for 1 product out of 23.

How to Lower Salt in Your Diet

So how can we cut down on salt without adding an hour to our shopping trips, checking the small print on every box that goes into the trolley?

We all know that fresh food is healthier than processed food already, so maybe it’s time to get out the recipe book rather than reaching into the freezer or the cupboard for the tins so often.

Cooking your food from raw ingredients gives you back control over what you eat and you can add as little or as much salt as you like, perhaps even experimenting with herbs instead of going straight for the salt to add flavour to your meals.

The reason we add so much salt to our meals is that we are so used to having it that the palate expects it to be there, so if you gradually use less, in time you may not even notice it’s missing.

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