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Salad & pasta bowl survey

31st July 2007

  • Public need to boycott high-salt salads and pasta bowls

New research published today by Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) shows that many seemingly healthy lunchtime salads and pasta bowls can contain more than one and a half times as much salt as a Big Mac and small French fries (2.5gi), while some contain hardly any salt at all.

The new study looked at 156 ready-made salads and pasta bowls from nine high-street retailers, three coffee shops and two fast-food outlets.  Whilst the average salad and pasta bowl contained 1.4g salt, nearly one fifth (19%, 30 products) of all products surveyed contained more salt than the acceptable amount for one meal (i.e. contained more than one third of our recommended maximum daily intake of 6g).

Shockingly, the highest salt product surveyed, EAT Thai Noodle Salad, contained 4.4g salt per portion, contributing 74% of an adult’s recommended daily salt limit. Even some of McDonalds own salads had more salt than their Big Mac and small French fries. For example, the healthy sounding Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad with Low Fat Caesar Dressing contains 3.3g of salt, a third more salt than the burger meal option. At the other end of the scale, 51 products (33% of those surveyed) had less than 1g of salt per serving showing that it is possible to produce lower salt products.

Classic salads, for example with leaves, tomatoes and spring onions, are naturally very low in salt. It is the ingredients that are added to this basic combination such as bacon, ham and cheese that add the salt. Therefore, sourcing lower salt ingredients is how the salt levels can be reduced, as demonstrated by other salads with similar ingredients. For example, ASDA Three Cheese Layered Salad contains 2.6g salt whereas Tesco Cheese Layered Salad Bowl contains 0.8g salt, i.e. 1.8g less salt. We also found cases where some ingredients also had salt added. For example Morrisons Tuna Pasta has salt added to the tuna.    

Furthermore, whilst some products contain high salt ingredients such as bacon and cheese, it would appear that in many salads and pasta bowls, the dressings are contributing an unnecessarily large amount of salt. When McDonalds Low Fat Caesar Dressing (2.7g salt per 100g) was compared to a Caesar dressing bought in a supermarket (Sainsbury’s Classic Caesar Salad Dressing 1.0g salt per 100g) we found that the McDonalds’ dressing had over two and a half times the amount of salt.

The choice of dressing is also important because it could add up to an additional gram of salt to the salad. For example, dressing a Burger King salad with a Burger King French Dressing or Tomato & Basil Dressing will add only 0.1g salt, whereas Burger King Thousand Island Dressing will add 1.1g salt to the meal.

Where dressings are served in a pot or sachet separate from the salad, consumers can control how much they add. However, where dressings are already added to the salad e.g. Pret a Manger No Bread Crayfish and Avocado (2.7g salt) consumers have no choice on the quantity of dressing that they choose to eat. We would like to see the salt content of the dressings dramatically reduced and provided separately to the salad so people have a choice.

“Many people think of a salad as a healthy lunch,” said Professor Graham MacGregor, Chairman of CASH and Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine.  “And in many cases this is true and we would encourage people to look out for low salt, low fat salads as a good lunchtime option. However, our research shows that there are some salads out there which really ought to carry a health warning, rather than be thought of as a healthy option.  Take EAT Smoked Mackerel Superfood Salad, for example.  This is clearly being marketed as a healthy option, but it contains 3.5g of salt, well over half an adult’s total daily limit.  If someone is looking to eat oily fish, then they would be much better having a Sainsbury’s Poached Scottish Salmon and Dill Pasta Salad, with only 0.4g of salt per portion.

“Saving 2-3g of salt a day may not sound like a lot, but research shows that people who reduce their salt intake by this sort of amount can reduce their risk of having a heart attack or stroke by a quarter. Cutting our salt intake in the UK is vital as for each 1g of salt we can cut out of our national average intake, we will save over 6,500 lives each year.

“This is an issue of customer choice,” said Carrie Bolt, Nutritionist at CASH who led the research. “I think that many people are not aware how much salt is in these ‘healthy’ lunchtime choices and I would urge them to check the salt content of their salad and remember that the dressing may also contain large amounts of salt. When high salt dressings are used, and the dressing is already added to the salad, people cannot control the amount of salt that they eat.

“To help people choose a lower salt lunch, we are listing all the lower salt products we found on our website, We are also listing those with higher salt levels so people can avoid them and in nearly every case there are similar products available from other manufacturers with less salt and we would urge people to choose a lower salt option.  

“People may have no control over the salt in their salad or pasta bowl, but they are able to vote with their feet and choose a lower salt one from a different outlet. This does mean comparing labels. However, research has shown that only one third of consumers look on labels of products that they buy for the first time so we encourage all consumers to start checking labels.”

Currently, when buying a salad at Pret a Manger consumers cannot check the packaging to see how much salt is in the salad because there is no nutrition labelling on pack. As nutritional information is available on their website it would be easy for them to put this on the packaging and we strongly urge them to do so.

The Cooperative and Boots have shown that it is possible for all their salad and pasta bowl products to be under 2.0g salt and while we have seen some reductions since we last surveyed salads in July 2005, there are a number of products by other manufacturers that are unnecessarily high in salt. These can easily be reduced, as shown by The Cooperative and Boots.

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