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The salty truth behind processed meat and meat alternatives

News | Published  4 March 2019

Nutritionist – Zoe Davies from Action on Salt explains the risks of too much salt, its links with processed food.

Food Retail

It’s Salt Awareness Week from 4 to 10 March 2019, in this article nutritionist – Zoe Davies from Action on Salt explains the risks of too much salt, its links with processed food and how we can enjoy delicious food with less salt.

When we talk about processed meat, the automatic thought is ‘unhealthy’ as it’s usually associated with cheaper, greasier and fattier meats. However, processed meat can also be high in salt, an ingredient many have forgotten about.

Salt is made up of sodium and chloride, and whilst necessary for our bodies in small amounts, too much sodium can raise blood pressure. High blood pressure can be caused by a number of reasons, some of which we cannot alter e.g. age, gender, race etc. But something that we can all modify is the amount of salt we consume on a daily basis.

In 2015, high blood pressure was responsible for 75,000 deaths. It is a risk factor for numerous conditions including stroke and kidney disease, and is the leading cause of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in England.

It is well known that consuming too much salt can increase the risk of having high blood pressure, but many of us mistakenly believe that we do not eat a lot of salt. The reality is that we’re often not in control of how much salt we consume, as the majority of salt is already in the food we buy from supermarkets, cafes and restaurants. In fact, 75% of our total salt intake comes from food we buy. As a result, we’re currently consuming 8 grams of salt per day, more than the 6 grams maximum recommended intake.

Why is there a lot of salt in processed meat?

All meat naturally contains some sodium, however processed meat usually has extra salt added to the product. Salt is used for preservation, controlling the growth of bacteria and preventing spoilage, as well as for flavour and texture.

However, whilst some salt may be needed for preservation, a lot of products in the market use more salt than necessary. There are so many different ways to flavour food with ingredients that aren’t harmful to health, such as herbs and spices.

Action on Salt conducts several surveys throughout the year. In 2017, they surveyed sausages, finding the sausage with the highest salt content contained 2.3 grams out of 100 grams, whilst the lowest contained 0.75 grams out of 100 grams. This survey highlighted that sausages can be made with less salt, and begs the question: why are manufacturers producing sausages high in salt, an ingredient proven to be harmful for our health?

What about meat alternatives?

This past year has seen an increase in flexitarian, vegetarian and veganism for several reasons including animal welfare, environment and health. Food manufacturers have therefore also increased the number of vegetarian/vegan friendly food products on sale. Action on Salt surveyed processed meat alternatives in 2018, including meat free burgers, sausages and mince.

Again, similar to the meat sausages, there was a large variation seen in the salt content of these products. Meat free mince had the largest variation with an 83% difference between the saltiest and least salty product on the market.

What swaps can I make to reduce my salt intake?

1.     Opt for plain cuts of meat rather than processed and ready seasoned.

Some products also highlight if they are from farms that care for animal welfare such as encouraging natural behaviours in a spacious environment.

Use herbs and spices to add extra flavour in your meals. Watch out for ready mixed packs of herbs and spices in supermarkets e.g. Cajun mix, as these can be high in salt.

Ideas for seasoning:

  • Chicken or Pork - honey, ginger, garlic 
  • Lamb - ginger, coriander, lime zest and juice
  • Beef - black pepper, chilli 
  • Fish - chopped fresh dill, lemon juice

2.     Watch out for processed meat alternatives, these can be surprisingly high in salt.

Add natural protein ingredients that will be much lower in salt to meals such as lentils, beans, eggs or plain tofu that you can season yourself without salt. 

3.     Reading labels can help you work out how high in salt a food may be.

Look out for the words ‘salt’, ‘salted’, ‘smoked’ or ‘cured’ in the name. When choosing canned food, check the ingredients to make sure no salt has been added, for example when choosing cooked beans or lentils in water.

4.     The front of pack colour coding can also help you see whether a food is high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) in salt.

For those without the front of pack colour coding, aim for products with less than 0.3 grams salt per 100 grams and try to avoid with more than 1.5 grams salt per 100 grams. For more help in choosing the healthier option, the Foodswitch app allows you to scan a barcode and it will instantly show you the traffic light system of any food and drink, as well as give you suggestions for a healthier alternative!

5.     Ask the chef for ‘no salt please’ when you’re eating out.

Your meal will still taste great! Someone wouldn’t add sugar to your tea without asking so why should they add salt?

Visit Action on Salt for resources, tips to reduce your own salt intake, ideas for running a local event or to actively write to your local MP, restaurant or favourite brands.