Research reveals hidden salt content of popular restaurant meals

 2nd February 2009

New research published today [Ref.1] by Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) shows that many popular meals eaten in UK high-street restaurants can contain large amounts of salt, in some cases more than twice the daily maximum limit for an adult in a single meal.  

To mark Salt Awareness Week 2009, CASH worked with Trading Standards officers around the country to measure the salt content of 96 popular menu items from 16 high street restaurant chains [Ref.2].  Samples were purchased from the restaurants and analysed for their salt content by the Public Analyst.

We found that nearly three quarters (72%) of the main course dishes contained 3g of salt or more, the maximum daily limit for a six year-old and half the adult daily limit, and seven of these contained 6g of salt or more, the maximum daily limit for an adult. [Ref 3.]  The saltiest dishes were not confined to one or two restaurants - six out of the sixteen (over one third, 38%) restaurants surveyed served a popular main course dish containing 6g of salt or more.

The saltiest main course surveyed was Old Orleans Chicken Fajitas, with 8.8g of salt per serving.  Old Orleans also serves Wings and Ribs with 7.6g of salt per portion.  A Pizza Express American Hot Pizza contains 7.5g of salt per portion and a Wagamama Ramen [Ref. 4] contains 7.2g of salt per serving. By comparison, a popular main meal at Beefeater of Sirloin Steak, grilled tomato, flat mushroom and chips contains only 0.4g of salt.  

Starters and side dishes were also surveyed, with Old Orleans Chicken Wings with spicy BBQ sauce and blue cheese dressing containing almost 5g of salt per portion.  Strada Aglio Garlic Bread contains 3.3g of salt per portion, over half the adult recommended daily limit.  

Desserts can also contain hidden salt:  Old Orleans Apple Pie with Ice Cream contains almost 1.6g of salt, equivalent to a quarter (27%) of the daily salt limit for an adult.  Harvester’s Bramley Apple Pie and Zizzi’s Mela Croccante [Ref. 5] each contain 0.9g of salt, 15% of an adult’s daily salt limit and almost a third of a six year-old’s.  

Someone eating at Old Orleans and choosing Chicken Wings followed by Chicken Fajitas and finishing with Apple Pie and Ice Cream would consume over 15g of salt, two and a half times their daily limit in one meal.  

Depending on their choice of dishes, customers eating a three-course meal in other restaurants could also eat well over the recommended daily salt limit.  For instance, a meal at Wagamama of Duck Gyoza followed by Wagamama Ramen with Cheesecake for dessert contains a total of 11.3g of salt.  At Pizza Express, Dough Balls followed by an American Hot pizza and Cheesecake contains 9.8g.

By comparison, at some of the restaurants surveyed, customers could choose meal combinations that are lower in salt. For example, at Beefeater, a Prawn Cocktail followed by Steak with Chips and Apple Crumble and Custard contains just 3g of salt.  And at Bella Italia a meal of Garlic Grossini followed by Penne Pollo a Crema and The Godfather chocolate dessert also adds up to 3g of salt. But even these make up half of an adult’s and all of a 6 year old’s maximum recommended intake for the whole day.

“Very few people eat out in restaurants every day of the week,” says Carrie Bolt, CASH Nutritionist, “but more and more of us are enjoying food outside the home on a regular basis.  Our worry is that people eating some of the higher salt meals we found will have no way of knowing how much salt is in their meal or that they have exceeded their daily salt limit, as there is no information available to them in the restaurants. I think that people will be as shocked as I am at the levels of hidden salt in some of our favourite restaurant meals.

Carrie Bolt continues: “We would much rather that restaurants gave their customers the choice when it comes to salt in their meals – add less during the cooking stage and let people add more at the table if they want to.  After all, no restaurant would dream of adding sugar to someone’s coffee or tea without asking them – why don’t they give people the same choice when it comes to salt?”

“Keeping our salt consumption below the recommended maximum limits is vital,” says Professor Graham MacGregor, Chairman of CASH and Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at St George’s Hospital in London.  “If we are to reduce the numbers of people needlessly dying from heart attacks and strokes, then we all need to keep a check on our salt intake.  The food industry in this country is leading the world in reducing the amount of salt it adds to the foods we buy in shops and supermarkets, and labelling those foods clearly so that we can make informed decisions about the products we buy.

“Unfortunately the same cannot be said for foods we eat in restaurants.  It simply beggars belief that almost five years after the Food Standards Agency launched its salt reduction programme, and with all the publicity there has been about the 6g a day target, some high street restaurants have done nothing to reduce the amount of salt they add to their meals.  If they had even considered this issue then we wouldn’t be finding meals containing more than a day’s salt limit in a single course.  By comparison, ready meals sold in supermarkets have had their salt content reduced considerably over the last few years, and when we last surveyed them, we found only a very few with salt contents over 3g salt per serving.”

CASH is using Salt Awareness Week 2009 to encourage people to ask for less salt to be added to their food when they eat out in restaurants.  And some of the UK’s top chefs are lending their voices to the campaign, hoping to persuade their colleagues to add less salt to their cooking:

Gordon Ramsay said, “I am pleased to support National Salt Awareness Week and the important issues it raises. A high salt diet poses many health risks and I urge all chefs to consider how much salt they add to their dishes.”

Raymond Blanc, Chef Patron of the Manoir Au Quat’ Saisons said, "I believe that good food does not need more than the very lightest of seasoning - there is no reason for good chefs to mask the flavour of their ingredients by adding too much salt. Remember herby, sour, bitter and acid are also wonderful catalysts of flavour. I fully support CASH and their 2009 Salt Awareness Week. Let's all eat better by going easy on the salt."

Elizabeth Carter, Editor of the Good Food Guide said, "The Good Food Guide applauds the many independent chefs and restaurateurs who are looking to reduce salt levels without compromising on quality or flavour. We fully support the forthcoming National Salt Awareness Week and the work it's doing to encourage further efforts in providing healthy and tasty choices."

David Pickering, Food and Nutrition Lead Officer for the Trading Standards
Institute, who coordinated the research project said: "People eating out have no idea how much salt they are consuming as there is no requirement in law for catering establishments to provide this information. I would like the Food Standards Agency to extend the proposed scheme for calorie labelling on menus to include fat and salt content. Our analysts found a wide range in amounts of salt in similar meals so it is really important that the individual establishments declare what they are putting into their own recipes so consumers can make an informed choice.  This project shows how the work of Trading Standards officers can help consumers make healthier food choices."

References:
Ref 1: The full table of results from all the restaurants surveyed should be attached with this release.  If it is not, or you have trouble opening the file, please contact Carrie Bolt or Wendy Jarrett on the numbers above, or the CASH office on 020 8725 2409

Ref 2:  The survey covered 16 of the largest high-street restaurant chains: ASK, Beefeater, Bella Italia, Café Rouge, Frankie and Benny’s, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Harvester, La Tasca, Nando’s, Old Orleans, Pizza Express, Prezzo, Strada, T.G.I. Fridays, Wagamamas, Zizzi.  We surveyed items from the starter/side, main and dessert menu, asking restaurants for their most popular dishes.
Information was obtained by a Trading Standards Officer purchasing each meal and putting the whole meal, as served, into a bag to be taken away for analysis by a laboratory. No discretionary salt was added to the food before analysis.  Total sodium content including salt from any other source (e.g. MSG) was reported as salt using the VEMS procedure VMS F/0054/2
Laboratory reports were sent to CASH for analysis.

Ref 3:  All the dishes containing 6g of salt or more are listed in the first table below.

Ref 4:  Wagamama Ramen is a bowl of noodles in vegetable soup with chicken, prawn, tofu, mushrooms and vegetables.

Ref 5: Zizzi Mela Croccante is a hot apple and amaretto crumble, served with vanilla ice cream.