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A new nationwide product survey by Action on Salt, the expert group based at Queen Mary University of London, has exposed the astonishingly high amounts of salt found in children’s Out of Home (OOH) meals, which demonstrates dismal progress made by the sector following a similar survey carried out in 20152.

Today, Action on Salt is calling for urgent high salt warning labels on children’s menu dishes with more than 1.8g of salt per serve (i.e. the 2017 salt target for OOH children’s meals set by Public Health England (PHE)) and follow New York City’s example which alerts consumers to high salt meals to help families and parents find healthier options.

It’s imperative that families know what is in their child’s food and until clearer nutrition labelling is introduced to the OOH sector, companies should take responsibility and reveal the dishes that are high in salt, says the experts.

Of the 351 meals surveyed, of which 12 were sent for laboratory analysis, 41% (i.e. 145) were HIGH in salt, with more than 1.8g of salt per portion. If colour coded labels used in supermarkets were used in the OOH sector, these meals would have a red label for their high salt content.

The worst offender for salt content was TGI Friday’s Chicken burger with crispy fries and baked beans with an astonishing 5.3g/portion – that’s almost as much salt as an adults’s recommended daily limit of salt (6g) and equivalent to more than 11 bags of ready salted crisps!

Table 1: Examples of children’s meals with high salt levels
High salt examples Salt per serve
TGI Friday’s Chicken Burger, Fries & Baked Beans 5.3g
Wetherspoon’s Fish, Chips and Baked Beans 4.9g
Chiquito’s Quesadilla Pizza with Baked Beans 4.3g
GBK Junior cheeseburger with skinny fries 4.3g
Pizza Hut’s Big heroes Chicken & cheese wrap & fries 4.07g

2015 vs 2019 salt comparison
29% of the 218 meals surveyed in 2015 had 2g of salt or more per portion (i.e. the maximum recommended intake for 1-3-year-olds7) compared to 37% of the 351 meals surveyed in 2019. This highlights the complete lack of commitment of the sector to reduce salt in their menus, and a lack of care for consumer health.

Of the dishes that appear in both the 2015 and 2019 surveys, 39% have achieved a reduction in salt content, but 20% have seen no change in salt content and a worrying 40% have actually increased in salt.

Variation in salt levels
When it comes to the variation in salt levels in meals of a similar type, the findings reveal a big difference. For example, the saltiest burger meal had SIX TIMES more salt than the least salty burger meal:

Meal - Higher salt - Salt per portion - Lower salt - Salt per portion - Difference
Burger & fries - GBK Junior Chicken Grilled Burger with skinny fries 4.1g, Leon Mini Chicken Burger with Fries 0.7g - 6 times more salt

Fish Fingers - Hungry Horse Large Fish Fingers, Fries & Baked Beans 2.43g, Brewers Fayre Breaded Cod Bites, Chips & Baked Beans 0.9g - Almost three times as salty

Sausages - Loch Fyne Sausage & Mash, Garden Peas & Gravy 3.57g, Brewers Fayre Bangers n Bash, Peas & Gravy 1.5g - More than twice as salty

The majority of children’s meals in the OOH sector include side dishes BUT a salty side dish can add an extra 1g of salt to the meal compared to a low salt side dish. For example, Wetherspoon’s chips had 1.2g of salt per portion compared to Brewers Fayre Chips with no salt – that’s not even including any sauces a child may add to their food. Always ask for ‘no salt’ on your chips!

Lower salt meals were available across all outlets showing how unnecessarily high salt meals are.

Table 2: Examples of children’s meals with lower salt levels
Lower salt examples - Salt per serve
Slug and lettuce Fish & Chips 0.3g
Ask Italian Penne Pasta in Bolognese sauce 0.4g
Beefeater’s Chicken Curry with Brown Rice and Veggie Sticks 0.5g
Subway Veggie Delite Kids Pak Mini Sub 0.5g
Wagamama Mini Yasai Chan Han 0.5g

Calories & fat levels
And it’s not just salt – many of these meals are packed with excessive calories and fat. For example, Hungry Horse Large Double Cheesy Burger with Fries & Baked Beans has 1,054 kcal per portion, more than half the recommended daily calorie intake for an adult and more than double the amount found in Brewers Fayre Chicken Burger with Two Mini Jacket Potatoes and Baked Beans (448 kcal). It would take an 8-year-old eight hours of swimming to burn off the Hungry Horse meal combo.

ASK Italian Margherita Pizza with Pepperoni and Extra Cheese has 19.9g saturated fat per portion, an adult woman’s maximum recommended daily intake and 2.5 times more than Pizza Hut’s Big Heroes Pan Pizza Margherita topped with pepperoni, sliced ham and chicken with fries with 8g per portion.

Mhairi Brown, Nutritionist at Action on Salt, explained, “This survey highlights the shocking levels of salt still present in many children’s meals, even though it is well known that dietary habits formed in childhood influences what you eat for the rest of your life. Protecting children’s health should be a priority for all food and drink companies – the out of home sector must act now and take salt off the menu for children.”

Zoe Davies, Nutritionist for Action on Salt and FoodSwitch, said, “Thankfully, many products in supermarkets display colour-coded front of pack nutrition labels which allows consumers to take personal responsibility and use apps, such as the free FoodSwitch app, to compare products and find the healthier option. It’s time for the out of home sector to take responsibility and offer us the same level of information.”

Katharine Jenner, Nutritionist and Campaign Director of Action on Salt, noted, “As a parent, it is so hard to try and find food and drink products that are both nutritionally balanced and appeal to your kids. Children aged 4 to 6 should have half as much salt as an adult – just 3g – a day maximum yet they are eating much more than this. These food companies have known for years that they need to reduce salt, yet they are neglecting to do their civic duty and are putting our children’s health at risk.”

Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chair of Action on Salt, added, “The Secretary of State for Health has promised long awaited new voluntary salt reduction plans in his green paper by Easter 2019, and they can’t come soon enough.

'Reducing salt is a shared responsibility between the food industry, individuals and the government and is the most cost-effective measure to reduce the number of people dying or suffering from entirely unnecessary strokes and heart disease.

“We’ve already seen the success of the UK’s previous work on salt reduction and we encourage the Secretary to mandate his plans, formalising them and helping to ensure progress is sustained, with huge cost savings to the NHS.”

This Salt Awareness Week, Action on Salt are calling for:
- High salt labels on children’s meals with more than 1.8g salt per portion
- Commitment from the out of home sector to reduce salt in children’s meals, and across their adult menus
- Ambitious salt reduction plans from the Secretary of State for Health

Action on Salt encourage everyone to eat less salt and to enjoy the natural flavour of food. Despite the UK leading the world in salt reduction we are all still eating too much salt, with a population average intake of 8.1g per day – much more than the maximum daily recommendation of 6g per day for an adult (about a teaspoon).

Tips to reduce salt when eating out
- Ask for vegetables, including corn on the cob, vegetable sticks and jacket potatoes instead of saltier sides such as fries and baked beans
- Ask the waiter for ‘no salt please!’ on all children’s meals, and yours too.
- Ask for sauces, dressings and gravy to be served on the side so you can choose how much you add
- Dishes with olives, cured meats and cheese will be saltier, ask for fewer of these ingredients and top up on fresh vegetables.

(source: Action on Salt, image: pexels)