Last updated on 8 June 2003
Ready meals salt survey – your questions answered
Find out more about the salt in ready meals survey.
The aim of this survey is to provide up-to-date and reliable information on the levels of salt in a range of ready meals. The survey is part of the Agency’s on-going programme of surveys looking at the levels of salt, fat and sugar in processed foods, some of which are major contributors to the amounts of salt, fat and sugar in the diets of adults and children. The results of the surveys will be used to raise awareness of this issue and, where possible, to help the Agency negotiate with the food industry to change the composition of processed foods.
The products used in this survey represent a snapshot of the ready meal sector. Ready meals are widely consumed in the UK - a recent survey suggested that 75% of households make use of ready meals.
The products included in the survey were chosen because they are included in the ready meal ranges of most manufacturers and retailers, and generally have a standard list of ingredients. Products aimed specifically at children were also included so that the salt content of these products could be compared with the new salt recommendations for children, published in May 2003.
The three products found to have the highest amount of salt per portion were:
- Sainsbury’s standard shepherd’s pie
5.9g of salt per portion - 98.3% of the recommended daily salt intake (6g)
- Marks and Spencer standard shepherd’s pie
4.8g of salt per portion - 80% of the recommended daily salt intake
- Tesco standard chicken korma and rice
4.6g of salt per portion - 76.7% of the recommended daily salt intake
- Sainsbury’s standard shepherd’s pie
The products found to have the lowest amount of salt per portion were generally those aimed at children and the 'healthy option' products. The standard product with the lowest amount of salt was Birds Eye lasagne with 1.5g salt per portion - 25% of the recommended daily salt intake.
Regularly eating too much salt has been linked to higher than average blood pressure, which leads to an increased risk of heart disease or stroke.
Other factors that affect blood pressure include body weight, alcohol consumption and physical activity. High blood pressure can also be hereditary.
Salt in the UK diet comes from three main sources:
- processed foods, including ready meals - these contribute about 75% of the salt in our diets. Salt or other compounds containing sodium (a component of salt) are added during processing and manufacture of a wide range of foods
- the salt added during cooking or at the table - makes up about 10% to 15% of the salt in our diets
- the salt found naturally in most foods - also represents about 10% to 15% of the salt in our diets
A healthy balanced diet is one that contains at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables a day, plenty of starchy carbohydrates (for example bread, other cereals such as pasta and rice, and potatoes), moderate amounts of dairy products, meat and fish. Foods containing high amounts of salt (or fat or sugar) should only be eaten in relatively small amounts, but they don’t need to be left out of the diet altogether.
There are a number of ways you can reduce the amount of salt in your diet. These include:
- check the labels on processed foods, such as tinned or packet soups and ready meals, to find those with less added salt. It's the sodium in salt that can lead to health problems and there are about 2.4g of sodium in 6g of salt
- check food labels for other forms of sodium used as flavour enhancers and preservatives such as monosodium glutamate and sodium bicarbonate. These are found in savoury foods, soups, sauces and meat products
- cut down on salty snacks such as crisps and nuts, and heavily salted foods such as bacon, cheese, pickles, smoked fish and many processed ready meals
- choose canned vegetables and pulses that are marked 'no added salt'
- stock cubes are high in salt, so choose lower salt versions, or make your own stock. Or you could add more herbs and spices for flavour instead
- cut down on sauces, especially soy sauce, because they are usually very high in salt
- add less salt to your cooking
- get out of the habit of adding salt at the table (try to remember to taste the food first)
If you want to make a healthy choice when choosing which food products to buy, you might find it useful to check the nutrition information on the food label. Information is usually given about the sodium content. There are about 2.5g of sodium in 6g of salt.
Use the following rules of thumb to judge a little or a lot of sodium in ready prepared foods including ready meals:
- 0.5g sodium or more per 100g of food = a lot
- 0.1g sodium or less per 100g of food = a little
Quantities between these figures mean the product has a moderate amount of sodium.
On average, adults should be having 6g salt per person per day, which is about one teaspoon. This is considerably less than people are currently having on average - about 9g per person per day.
In May 2003, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition made recommendations on the maximum amounts of salt that babies and children should be having. Their report Salt and Health advises:
- up to 6 months old - less than 1g per day
- 7 to 12 months - 1g per day
- 1 to 3 years - up to 2g per day
- 4 to 6 years - 3g per day
- 7 to 10 years - 5g per day
From the age of 11, children should be having no more than about 6g salt per day. This is the same level that is recommended for adults.
Children are thought to be having substantially more than these levels, although there are currently no reliable estimates.
Most ready meals contain one serving per pack, and we have assumed this to be the case for the majority of ready meals included in the survey. However, one or two products were larger or it was indicated on the pack that they were intended to serve more than one person. In these cases, the portion size we have used is different to the pack size.
The exception was Marks and Spencer's shepherd's pie. The label suggests that it provides two servings from a 400g pack. However, most other shepherd's pies, and other meals included in the survey, were between 350-450g. Therefore it was decided to treat this pack as a single serving.
Manufacturers and retailers have reported different levels of salt reduction in a range of foods. Some low-salt and reduced-salt options of standard products are now available and this increases consumer choice. There have also been some improvements in labelling of salt in processed foods.
The Food and Drink Federation, which represents the UK food and drink manufacturing industry, has recently made a commitment to reduce salt levels in soups and sauces.
What is the Government doing to make sure the food industry reduces the amount of salt it puts in food?
The food industry can play an important role in helping consumers improve their health by reducing the levels of salt in processed food and by providing more reduced and low salt options.
The FSA and UK Health Departments will continue to work with retailers and manufacturers to make this happen. There are ongoing discussions with food manufacturers and retailers about the levels of salt in manufactured foods and the opportunities for reducing them.
Action is currently underway to improve the labelling of salt and sodium on food products. The FSA has recently commissioned research and met with health professionals, consumer groups and industry groups to discuss the nutrition information that consumers look for, to see how labelling (including salt/sodium labelling) can be improved. Current Agency advice is that information on labels about sodium should also include the equivalent amount of salt.
The FSA will continue with its ongoing programme of surveys monitoring the composition of foods. The Agency will be using these surveys to track changes in the salt content of a wide range of foods. This will enable us to monitor claims made by industry on salt content of products and initiatives to lower salt in manufactured foods.
Other Government initiatives are likely to have an impact on blood pressure. These include the Department of Health’s ‘Five a Day’ programme to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables people are eating, action to increase physical activity levels, and action to tackle rising trends in overweight and obesity.