Researchers at Action on Salt are calling for a restriction on the use of “misleading” nutrition claims on unhealthy foods (deemed high in fat, salt and sugar: HFSS).
This comes as new data reveals some seemingly ‘healthy’ snacks are in fact saltier than the concentration of seawater and could be sabotaging our health.
In an analysis of 119 snacks including dried/roasted pulses and processed pulse snacks (lentil curls, chickpea chips and puffs), which are often perceived as ‘healthy alternatives’ to the usual snacking options (i.e. crisps and flavoured nuts), the findings are raising serious concerns amongst experts – especially given reports of increased snacking during 2020 compared to pre-COVID.
Despite these products being (on average) lower in fat, saturated fat and calories, and higher in fibre compared to standard crisps and flavoured nuts, over one in three (43%) are also high in salt (i.e., more than 1.5g/100g) – a forgotten ingredient that raises our blood pressure and puts us at an increased risk of strokes and heart attacks.
The saltiest product surveyed is Eat Real Hummus Chilli & Lemon Flavoured Chips with 3.6g/100g salt, and over 1g salt in a single suggested serve (28g) – more salt than 2 bags of McDonald’s small French fries.
Amongst dried/roasted pulses, corn style snacks were (on average) the saltiest at 1.85g/100g, and more salt than salted peanuts.
The saltiest dried pulse snacks surveyed are Love Corn Salt & Vinegar and Love Corn Habanero Chilli, with 2.8g/100g salt – saltier than the concentration of sea wateri. Just one 45g serve of either of these snacks (1.3g salt) would provide over a fifth of our maximum daily salt intake[viii] and more salt than 3.5 bags of Walkers Ready Salted crisps.
Whilst many products are high in salt, the data also presents a wide variation in salt content for different snacks, demonstrating that they can be made with less salt.
Despite more than half (55%) of the products surveyed being high in fat, salt and/or sugar (HFSS), the majority of products do not display colour coded nutrition information on front of pack as per government guidance.
Instead, most products feature on-pack nutrition claims, which, whilst legal, mislead consumers by creating a distorted ‘health halo’ and discouraging shoppers from scrutinising the ingredients more thoroughly.
For example, the saltiest snack surveyed, Eat Real Hummus Chilli & Lemon Flavoured Chips contains 3.6g salt/100g, and yet the front of pack states ‘40% less fat, Vegan, Gluten free’.
81% of snacks surveyed include a nutrient based claim on pack (e.g. ‘x kcal per serving’ ‘Less fat’, ‘No added sugar’, ‘Source/High in fibre/protein’), and almost all (95%) include claims such as ‘Gluten free’, ‘Vegan’, ‘All natural’ and ‘No artificial preservatives’.
One in three snacks surveyed also specify the use of sea salt, which is often perceived as healthier than standard salt, but in fact research[xi] has shown they all contain the same levels of sodium and are therefore equally damaging to health.
What’s more, the Government recently announced plans to restrict the promotion of some unhealthy food (i.e. only foods which fall under the current sugar and calorie reduction programmes), yet it is not clear whether these snacks will be included in the programme – even though half (55%) of these seemingly healthier products are HFSS.
To ensure salt levels are reduced across all products, including so-called ’healthy’ snacks, it is imperative that Ministers announce the successor to Public Health England, to take on their vital salt reduction work.
Sonia Pombo, Campaign Manager at Action on Salt says: “We should all be eating more beans and pulses, but there are better ways of doing it, and eating processed snacks high in salt is not one of them.
“This important survey has put a spotlight on the unnecessary amounts of salt in ‘healthy’ snacks, and the use of nutrition claims on HFSS foods need to be questioned.
“Instead of misleading their customers, companies should be doing all they can to help us all make more informed decisions, including using front of pack colour coded labels.”