Salt Awareness Week 2020

‘Healthy’ plant based meals drowning in salt as Action on Salt calls for Government to get tough on the eating out sector

  • NEW survey by Action on Salt exposes shocking reality of many ‘healthy’ sounding plant based and vegan meals served at UK restaurants, fast food and coffee chains – with some containing more salt than 8 McDonald’s Hamburgers
  • Nearly half (45%) of meals eaten out of the home contain 3g or more salt in just a single meal – that’s half the maximum daily limit for an adult
  • Additionally, over one in five dishes provide more than half an adult’s maximum daily recommendation for saturated fat
  • The eating out sector lags far behind the food sold in supermarkets. It’s now up to the Secretary of State for Health to enforce the targets, in order to ensure a level playing field.

NEW research by Action on Salt (based at Queen Mary University of London and Bart’s Hospital) have exposed the shocking reality of many ‘healthy’ sounding plant based and vegan meals[i] being served at UK restaurants, fast food and coffee chains.

To mark Salt Awareness Week (9th-15th March 2020), the group of experts are urging the Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock to implement more robust salt reduction targets – with proper enforcement – in order to create a fair and level playing field across both the retail AND eating out sectors.

Data from a recent public opinion poll to accompany the survey highlights one of the main reasons why people consume plant-based food is that they are perceived to be healthier[ii].  However, this survey (the largest of its kind) of 290 plant-based and vegan meals collected from a total of 45 restaurant, takeaway, fast food and coffee chains, reveals the shocking truth about their salt and saturated fat content, and the dismal lack of nutritional information available. If food or drinks are high in saturated fat, salt or sugar (HFSS), they are not classified as ‘healthy’[iii].

Restaurant Plant Based and Vegan Meals

A staggering three out of five plant-based restaurant meals surveyed with nutrition information (96/151) contain 3g or more salt – that’s half of an adult’s maximum daily intake of salt. Worse still, 19 of these provide 6g or more salt – that’s an adult’s ENTIRE maximum daily limit in just one meal!

Examples of Salty Meals

o  Papa John’s Vegan American Hot Medium Pizza, 9.28g salt - more salt than 7 McDonald’s Hamburgers[iv]

o  Loch Fyne Spiced Roasted Cauliflower & Squash Goan Curry 8.65g salt – saltier than 19 anchovies[v]

o  Bella Italia Vegan Cheese Pizza 8.1g salt – saltier than 23 bags of ready salted crisps[vi]

o  Chiquitos Vegarrito 7.89g salt

o  Slug and Lettuce Louisiana Chick’n Vegan Meat-less Burger 7.6g salt

If these restaurant chains were to display colour-coded nutrition information on their menus like packaged food in supermarkets, more than four out of five (127/151) plant-based meals would have a red label for high salt content (i.e. >1.8g salt in a meal)[vii].

Interestingly, the variation in salt content of similar meals served at different restaurants is surprising and shows that salt isn’t needed for flavour – with some restaurants offering tasty dishes that have seven times less salt than their competitors, clearly demonstrating that these meals can easily be made with much less salt.

Fast Food & Coffee Chains Plant Based and Vegan Meals

A whopping two thirds of plant-based meals (82/128) available in fast food and coffee chains would get a red label for being high in salt (>1.8g salt per portion) – along with nearly two in five (29/128) meals containing 3g or more salt i.e. half of an adult’s maximum daily intake of salt.

Examples of Salty meals

o  Wasabi Pumpkin Katsu Curry Yakisoba 10.3g salt – saltier than 8 McDonald’s Hamburgers

o  Wasabi Veg Tanmen Soup 9.7g salt –saltier than 21 anchovy fillets

o  EAT 3 Bean, Smoked Chili and Tomato 5g salt – saltier than 14 bags of ready salted crisps

o  Abokado THIS Vegan Katsu Curry (with sauce) 4.6g salt

o  Cojean Vegetable Gyoza Miso Soup 4.3g salt

Download the full list of data on plant based food surveyed below

Saturated Fat in Plant Based and Vegan Meals

AND it’s not just salty food being served up by UK restaurants, fast food and coffee chains – over half of all restaurant meals surveyed would qualify for a red label (>6g/portion) for saturated fat, and more than one in five dishes provide more than half of an adult’s maximum daily intake for saturated fat[viii]. One of the worst offenders is Harvester’s The Purist Burger (served with triple cooked chips), containing 54.2g saturated fat in a meal, nearly 3 times a woman’s maximum daily intake!

Sonia Pombo, Campaign Manager for Action on Salt says: “This survey highlights that some restaurants are always looking for new ways to produce unhealthy dishes, this time hidden under a vegan health halo, but continuing to drown us in salt and saturated fat just the same. Eating a more plant based diet can and should be beneficial for a number of reasons, but whether you are looking to eat less meat for animal welfare, sustainability or health reasons, it is important to know a ‘plant-based’ or ‘vegan’ label does not automatically qualify a product as healthy.  It is time for restaurants and cafes to step up and start making food that is healthy for us and better for the planet”  

Zoe Davies, Nutritionist at Action on Salt explains: “Making healthier choices isn’t always the easy option, but whereas much of the retail sector voluntarily displays clear nutrition information on the front of their packaging to help shoppers find the healthier options, the eating out sector have yet to be as transparent.

“In fact, they are hiding behind labels such as ‘vegan’ and ‘plant-based’, and our research shows this is misleading customers into thinking they are healthy. We therefore need to see clear nutritional information displayed both online and on menus, to make it easier for diners to make genuine, informed healthy choices.”

Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chair of Action on Salt, adds: “It is shocking that many in the out of home sector appear to be deliberately ignoring the voluntary salt reduction targets, in what many regard incorrectly as healthy food. The government must enforce stricter and more comprehensive salt reduction targets and create a fair and level playing field wherever you choose to eat.

“Salt is the leading cause of raised blood pressure which in turn is the major cause of strokes and heart disease. According to the Department of Health & Social Care, each one gram/day reduction in population salt intake, saves more than 4,000 premature deaths per year. Given this, it is immoral of any food company not to do their part, and the Secretary of State needs to act now.”

Salt Targets

Public Health England’s 2017 salt reduction targets include targets for the eating out sector and are intended to guide salt reduction in the meals we eat in restaurants, cafes and fast food outlets[ix]. However, of all the meals surveyed, only half (56%) have a salt reduction target in place, and of those, only 53 (32%) have failed, despite the high levels of salt reported in many of these dishes. This clearly demonstrates that the targets not comprehensive, ambitious or fit for purpose. The Government announced their commitment to reducing salt in their Prevention Green Paper last year, and are currently negotiating new targets for the food industry to achieve by 2023. The Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock must now be brave and bring these out of home targets in line with the rest of the food industry, with clear consistent monitoring across the whole industry.

When asked if they would support government taking action to ensure that the out of home sector reduces salt levels in their dishes and is transparent about the nutritional content of their meals on menus, 73% of the public said yes.
Salt Awareness Week 2020 - Plant-Based Meals [DOC 91KB]


National PR – David Clarke: M: 07773 225516


Twitter: @actiononsalt #LessSalt

[i] This data was collected by Action on Salt through online research (week commencing 24th February 2020) and updated on 4th March 2020. The data collected by Action on Salt includes plant based or ‘vegan friendly’ options from different restaurants in the UK. In total, there are 27 restaurants and 18 fast food and coffee chains with nutritional information represented in the data. Data from 290 savoury main dishes we collected, including soups, salads, sandwiches and wraps (starters, sides sharers and desserts were not included); 162 from restaurant chains, and 128 from fast food and coffee shop chains. These are discussed separately as they offer a different meal experience and are therefore not entirely comparable.

[ii] The research was conducted by Censuswide, with 2,022 Nationally Representative respondents aged 16+ in GB between 15.01.2020 - 17.01.2020.  The survey was conducted from a random sample of UK adults.  Of the 1637 who buy plant based food, 581 reported in doing so for health improvement. Censuswide abide by and employ members of the Market Research Society which is based on the ESOMAR principles.

[iii] Department of Health & Social Care Nutrient Profiling Technical Guidance

[iv] A McDonald’s Hamburger contains 1.2g salt per portion

[v] 2 anchovy fillets provide 0.9g salt

[vi] A 25g bag of Walkers ready salted crisps contains 0.35g salt

[vii] Government criteria for colour coding on a front of pack label For salt, the criteria for high (red) is >1.8g per portion; for saturated fat, the criteria for high (red) is >6g saturated fat per portion.

[viii] Women should not have more than 20g of saturated fat a day. NHS

[ix] Public Health England Salt Reduction: Targets for 2017