Embargoed until Tuesday 13th March 00.01 (GMT)
- Chinese meals should carry a health warning as some of the saltiest takeaways contain as much salt as five Big Macs1, warns leading experts
- With 22 million takeaways eaten by UK adults each week2 (Chinese being the most popular3) – there’s an urgent demand to drastically cut salt content
- Supermarket Chinese ready meals are also extremely high in salt with some containing more than two store-bought Pizza Express Margherita Pizzas4 AND certain rice dishes have more salt than 11 bags ready salted crisps5
- To mark Salt Awareness Week (12 – 18th March), Action on Salt calls on Public Health England to take immediate action and resuscitate the UK salt reduction programme, including the setting of NEW salt targets6, making front of pack labelling mandatory and following the lead of the New York City Board of Health7 which requires chain restaurants to put warning labels on high salt dishes
Click to view full survey data Salt Awareness Week 2018 Survey Data [PDF 617KB]
Click to view our Survey Report Salt Awareness Week 2018 Survey Report [PDF 11,729KB]
Chinese meals should carry a health warning on packaging and menus after a NEW survey8 by Action on Salt (formerly Consensus Action on Salt and Health, CASH) based at the Wolfson Institute, Barts & The London, Queen Mary University of London has exposed the astonishing and harmful amounts of salt found in both Chinese takeaways and Chinese ready meals sold by some of the UK’s biggest supermarkets. The group of leading experts is now calling on Public Health England (PHE) to get tough on setting new salt targets, making front of pack labelling mandatory and put warning labels on menus for dishes high in salt.
Take-away (the salt)
An analysis of Chinese takeaway meals purchased from six independent restaurants in London’s famous Chinatown district revealed 97% contained a hefty 2g of salt or more per dish. Over half (58%) contained more than 3g of salt per dish – which is half an adult’s maximum recommended daily intake in one portion alone. Combining side dishes would consequently provide far more salt than the recommended daily limit for the whole day (6g/day)9.
The saltiest takeaway main with a rice/noodle side dish contained a staggering 11.50g salt (Beef in Black Bean Sauce and Vegetable Noodles from Wong Kei restaurant), the equivalent of five Big Macs1, and getting near to the acute toxic levels of salt10.
Alarmingly, the survey also exposed the shockingly large variations in the salt content of the SAME dishes but from different restaurants e.g. the saltiest sweet and sour dish contained a staggering 3.4g of salt per dish – that’s the same amount found in 70 Ritz Crackers11 - whereas the lowest contained just 1g. Consuming the lower salt option would cut your salt intake by more than three times in the main dish alone! Similarly, there was a two-fold difference in salt for Szechuan Beef, ranging from 2.30g-4.60g per dish.
Beef in black bean sauce dishes were the saltiest on average (1.27g/100g), whilst sweet and sour dishes were the least salty (0.54g/100g on average).
Supermarket Ready Meals
When it comes to ready meals, the saltiest Chinese dish was Slimming World’s Chinese Style Banquet Rice with 4.40g salt per 550g pack – that’s more salt than two store-bought Pizza Express Margherita Pizzas4.
Next in line was Marks & Spencer Crispy Sweet and Sour Chicken Banquet with 4.13g salt per 500g pack, providing over two thirds (69%) of an adult’s maximum daily intake – that's the same as scoffing more than three McDonald’s hamburgers12.
The least salty meal was Tesco’s Vegetable Chow Mein (0.40g per 120g portion), followed by Sainsbury’s Sweet & Sour Chicken (0.53g per 175g portion).
Of the 141 ready meals surveyed, nearly half (43%) were high in salt (containing over 1.5g/100g or 1.8g per portion) and would receive a red label on front of pack13.
As well as main dishes being high in salt, rice dishes and other sides, such as spring rolls and prawn crackers, can add a significant amount of salt to your meal. For example, Iceland’s Takeaway Egg Fried Rice has a shocking 4.1g salt per 350g pack - more salt than 11 bags of ready salted crisps5 - compared to Tesco’s Egg Fried Rice with 0.1g per 250g pack!
When it comes to dipping in, consumers should also think twice about sauces, with some containing excessively high levels of salt. Soy sauces were by far the saltiest – on average being over 5 TIMES saltier than seawater14. Incorporating sides and dipping sauces to your meal could provide you with nearly 4g salt per person alone. For example, 2 ASDA Hoisin Duck Spring Rolls and 15ml of ASDA Dark Soy Sauce contains 3.82g salt – more salt than nine servings of peanuts15.
The UK was once leading the world on salt reduction, which was shown to be the most cost effective public health programme e.g. up to 2011, the UK salt reduction programme had already saved 18,000 strokes and heart attacks per year, 9,000 of which were fatal16, with £1.5 billion a year in NHS healthcare saving costs, according to NICE17. In 2016, PHE assumed responsibility for UK salt reduction, however so far there has been little action, with no progress report on whether the last set of salt targets (due to be met by the end of 2017) have been reached, nor any plans to set new targets. As part of its 19th Salt Awareness Week (12-18th March 2018) supported by 10 NGO’s18, Action on Salt is calling on PHE for immediate action, as valuable time has been lost and many thousands of people have suffered strokes and heart attacks, many of which are fatal, as a consequence. Every 1g reduction in salt intake prevents 7,000 deaths, 4,000 of which are premature, from strokes and heart disease17.
Sonia Pombo, Campaign Manager at Action on Salt says, “Our data shows that food can be easily reformulated with lower levels of salt, so why haven’t all companies acted responsibly? The lack of front-of-pack colour coded labelling on branded products makes it incredibly difficult for consumers to make healthier choices and that is simply unacceptable. This week, as part of Salt Awareness Week, we are asking everyone, including the food industry, to think first and use less salt.”
Sarah Alderton, Assistant Nutritionist at Action on Salt adds, “Considering how many millions of takeaways and ready meals are eaten in the UK each week, the food industry must be held to account, with new salt targets set by the government to ensure the salt content of these meals is reduced to much lower levels, and fast. If the food industry don’t comply, they should be made mandatory.”
Mhairi Brown, Assistant Nutritionist at World Action on Salt & Health, says “If Public Health England is serious about protecting our health, they should consider following the lead of the New York City Board of Health, which requires chain restaurants to put warning labels on high salt dishes, or Chile’s Ministry of Health, which places warning labels on all high salt, sugar and saturated fat products sold in supermarkets.”
Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chairman of Action on Salt, adds “Salt is the forgotten killer as it puts up our blood pressure, leading to tens of thousands of unnecessary strokes, heart failure and heart attacks every year. Reducing salt is the most cost effective measure to reduce the number of people dying or suffering from strokes or heart disease. We are now calling on PHE to take immediate action.”
Helen Seward, M&S Nutritionist, said: "As part of our ongoing work to reduce the salt in our recipes, the salt content has already been reduced by 0.25g in our Crispy Sweet & Sour Chicken to 3.88g per portion (down from 4.13g). The packaging is being updated to reflect this and will be in stores shortly.”
Beth Fowler, Nutritionist at ASDA, said: "Asda has been working hard for nearly two decades to reformulate our own-label products to remove salt, calories, fat, sat-fat and sugar, without compromising on taste or quality. We have made excellent progress: In 2017 alone we removed 386 tonnes of fat, 175 tonnes of saturated fat, 2470 tonnes of sugar and 50 tonnes of salt from our own-label products. Since the data for this report was collected we have also reformulated our Chinese ready meal selection, including driving down salt and we are happy to announce we are launching an own brand reduced-salt soy sauce in July. We now meet the salt targets in 97% of the salt reduction categories, including in Ready Meals."
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Notes to editors:
About Action on Salt
Action on Salt is a group concerned with salt and its effects on health, supported by 22 expert scientific members. Action on Salt is successfully working to reach a consensus with the food industry and Government over the harmful effects of a high salt diet, and bring about a reduction in the amount of salt in processed foods as well as salt added to cooking, and at the table.
In the early 2000’s the UK pioneered a salt reduction strategy with the Food Standards Agency and Action on Salt with the setting of incremental salt targets, so that the food industry was slowly reducing the huge and unnecessary amounts of salt they add to food. This resulted in a fall in UK population salt intake, a fall in average blood pressure and more than 12,000 lives have been saved from preventing strokes and heart disease. However in 2010 responsibility for salt reduction was switched to the Department of Health and the food industry was made responsible for policing itself, a policy that unsurprisingly failed. Further salt reduction targets were set to be achieved by the end of 2017 but little action has been taken to ensure the food industry is meeting these targets. PHE are now responsible for the UK salt reduction programme but so far have done little or nothing. All of the above has meant that the salt reduction programme has been slowed down with the result that many thousands of people have died unnecessarily and huge and unnecessary costs have been incurred by the NHS. Salt is the forgotten killer; the time has come for PHE to allocate sufficient resources to immediately resuscitate the UK salt reduction programme.
- A McDonald’s Big Mac contains 2.3g salt https://www.mcdonalds.com/gb/en-gb/product/big-mac.html
- Cancer Research UK (2017) A weighty issue: A study of UK adults’ consumption behaviours, knowledge of calorie and added sugar guidelines and physical activity levels [online] available at http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/sites/default/files/a_weighty_issue_full_report.pdf
- A poll of 2,000 British people commissioned by Payment Sense found Chinese food to be the most popular top takeaway in the UK, with 35 per cent of the vote https://www.paymentsense.co.uk/blog/what-is-the-uks-favourite-cuisine/
- A store bought Pizza Express Margherita Pizza 245g contains 1.96g https://www.tesco.com/groceries/en-GB/products/261384030
- A 25g bag of Walkers Ready Salted crisps contains 0.35g salt http://www.tesco.com/groceries/product/details/?id=254926800
- The last set of salt targets produced by government under the Department of Health’s Responsibility Deal was published in 2014 for 76 different categories of food. These were set to be achieved by the end of 2017. No new targets have been set since. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20180201175712/https://responsibilitydeal.dh.gov.uk/responsibility-deal-food-network-new-salt-targets-f9-salt-reduction-2017-pledge-f10-out-of-home-salt-reduction-pledge/
- Nutrition data for supermarket ready meals was collected in-store from product packaging using The George Institute’s Data Collector App. Nutrition information not displayed on the label was sought from the company website. All products were collected from all major supermarkets: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, The Co-op, Aldi, Lidl and Iceland in January 2018.Five popular Chinese dishes were also analysed from six takeaway restaurants in London’s Chinatown, chosen at random, using Kent Scientific Services to measure their salt content – dishes included a main, a side and a starter and were purchased and analysed in January 2018. Sample size is small; however, this data provides a good indication of the typical salt values in Chinese restaurants across the country.
- Maximum recommended daily salt intakes for adults and children https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/salt.aspx
- “A New or Old Chinese Restaurant Syndrome?” Letter in the British Medical Journal (Clin Res Ed). 1982 Oct 23; 285(6349): 1205.
- Ritz Crackers contain 0.34g salt per 25g portion i.e. 7 crackers https://www.tesco.com/groceries/en-GB/products/254925421
- A McDonald’s Hamburger contains 1.2g salt https://www.mcdonalds.com/gb/en-gb/product/hamburger.html
- Based on the Department of Health’s guidance for front of pack nutrition labelling https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/300886/2902158_FoP_Nutrition_2014.pdf
- Atlantic seawater contains 1g of sodium per 100g of water, equivalent to 2.5g of salt per 100g. Average salt content of soy sauces surveyed was 13.13g/100g
- KP Salted Peanuts contain 0.39g salt per 30g serving https://www.kpnuts.com/kp_product/original-salted/
- He FJ, Pombo-Rodrigues S, MacGregor GA Salt reduction in England from 2003 to 2011: its relationship to blood pressure, stroke and ischaemic heart disease mortality BMJ Open 2014;4:e004549. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2013-004549
- NICE Guidance on the prevention of cardiovascular disease at the population level, 1g reduction = 7,000 strokes and heart attacks prevented, and £1.5 billion healthcare savings, June 2010. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Guidance on the prevention of cardiovascular disease at the population level. http://guidance.nice.org.uk/PH25
- Salt Awareness Week is supported by Blood Pressure UK, Heart UK, Stroke Association, UK Health Forum, World Cancer Research Fund, Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD) Charity, Men’s Health Forum, Diabetes UK, Heart Research UK and the Real Bread Campaign.
Table 1: Examples of supermarket meal combinations high in salt
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The Daily Express: ‘Chinese dishes should carry a health warning’, page 21
The Guardian: ‘Put warnings on ‘astonishingly’ salty Chinese food, experts say’, page 7
The Daily Mail: ‘Chinese meals ‘so salty they should have a health warning’, page 27
The Daily Telegraph: ‘Chinese meal has twice the recommended daily salt limit’, page 2
The Times: ‘Takeaway salt warning’, page 4
The Sun: ‘Chinese meals’ oodles of salt’, page 28
The Daily Mirror: ‘Salt danger in Chinese meals’, page 16
i News: “Salt warnings ‘needed for Chinese meals’’, page 20
Independent.ie Chinese meals contain half daily salt intake
The Huffington Post: These Are The Worst (And Best) Chinese Dishes For Salt Content
The London Economic: Chinese takeaways contain as much salt 'as five Big Macs'
Belfast Telegraph: Call for salt warnings on takeaways ready meals
Shropshire Star: Call for salt action on Chinese takeaway dishes
Breaking News .ie: Call for salt action on Chinese takeaways and ready meals
The HighTech Caller: Chinese Takeaways should Carry Health Warning Labels
Convenience Store: Chinese ready meals should carry salt health warnings
The Debrief: SHOULD WE ALL STOP EATING CHINESE TAKEAWAY?
Isle of Wight Radio: Chinese takeaway dishes ‘should carry warnings about salt content’
The Irish Times: Chinese takeaways and ready meals ‘should carry warnings’
The Epoch Times: Chinese Takeaway Contained as Much Salt as 5 Big Macs: Report
The Herald Scotland: Chinese takeaways 'contain as much salt as five Big Macs'
The Insider Car News:Call for salt warnings on takeaway ready meals
The Africom: Chinese Takeaways should Carry Health Warning Labels