The sodium levels of processed meat and fish products, sold in the UK, saw it rank fifth out of five nations for highest salt content in a World Health Organization (WHO) study.
China ranked first – and worst – while the US was second. But salt levels within and between the countries studied varied widely, depending on the product and brand, the findings show.
High dietary salt intake is a major cause of high blood pressure and the associated risks of cardiovascular and kidney diseases and death. The WHO recommends a maximum salt intake of 2,000 mg/day. Average global salt intake in 2010 was nearer 4,000 mg/day.
The WHO has set a target of a 30% global reduction in salt intake by 2025, and to gauge progress against this, focused on the salt content of processed meat and fish products in three developed and two developing countries: the UK; USA; Australia; China; and South Africa.
The five nations included in this study each have their own strategies to reduce dietary salt intake and are part of The International Network for Food and Obesity/noncommunicable diseases Research, Monitoring and Action Support (INFORMAS), which aims to collate and track the nutritional content of processed foods worldwide.
The 2017 UK’s salt reduction targets were applied to assess the percentage of products reaching the levels across the five countries.
Products for the study were sourced from major supermarket chains in the five countries, and the food nutrition labels scanned to assess the salt (sodium) content (mg/100 g).
In reference to the ‘traffic light’ system adopted by the UK, salt (sodium) level was defined as low if under 120 mg/100g; medium if between 120 and 599 mg/100g; and high if above 600 mg/100 g.
A total of 33,955 processed meat and fish product labels were scanned, of which 7,455 (22%) were excluded because of missing or duplicate information, leaving 26,500 (78%) products for analysis. The total number ranged from 885 for the UK to 17,098 for the USA.
Overall, China had the highest salt level (1,050 mg/100 g) for all products, ranking it the country with the saltiest products for both meat (1,066 mg/100 g) and fish products (942 mg/100 g), followed by the USA, South Africa, Australia and the UK.
But the average salt content of meat products was lower in Australia (580 mg/100 g) than in the UK (590 mg/100 g). And significant variations in salt content were evident among all the subcategories and between countries.
For example, the salt content of roast chicken in China was 4.5 times that of the same product in the UK (893 mg/100 g vs 197 mg/100 g). And chilled fish in China was 4.5 times saltier than that of the USA (1,744 mg/100 g vs 389 mg/100 g).
A substantial proportion of processed meat and fish products fell into the red and amber traffic light categories, with the highest proportion of green light products found in the UK, accounting for just over 12.5% of all meat and fish products.
But the overall sodium content of meat and fish products in each country was high, with only 10% of the products in the UK and USA, and no more than 5% in China and South Africa, falling into the green light category.
“It is not easy to simply replace, or reformulate, the high sodium products that have existed for years. However, the large difference in sodium content of similar products in different countries, and the difference in sodium content among different brands within the same country, indicate that there is still a lot of room for salt reduction,” commented the researchers.
They acknowledge limitations to their findings, including that these are based on purchases from selected outlets at one point in time. What is more, they did not capture food purchasing data to quantify actual sodium consumption of processed meat and fish products. And data collection spanned several years, from 2012 to 2018, during which time product reformulation could have occurred, they suggest.
Nevertheless, they concluded: “The sodium content of meat and fish products in all the selected countries was very high, with a 100 g serving size of meat and fish products contributing to one half/ third of WHO recommended maximum daily sodium intake.”