Why does the food industry put so much salt in its food?

Like many people, I imagine, I pay the BBC licence fee to support its radio rather than its television programs. Radio is a delightful but curious medium. It has none of the intensity of its visual cousin – it’s almost a relief to switch it on. And though it has entered the digital world, it feels antiquated. I imagine my ancestors listening to the radio, huddled around a block of bakelite listening to Chamberlain announce to the world that it was at war, and I feel connected.

BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific (broadcast in the UK on Tuesdays at 09.00 and 21.30) is one of the station’s most informative programs. Last week, host and all-round brain Jim Al-Khalili interviewed Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine Graham MacGregor. MacGregor is a salt specialist. He knows all too well what happens to our bodies if we consume too much of it, but, and here’s what made the program so interesting, he also has a pretty good idea who is responsible for why we consume so much: it’s the food industry.

According to MacGregor, we need 0.5g salt per day but on average consume 10g per day. The recommended amount is 6g with an ‘ideal’ amount of around 3g. So, we consume 20x the amount of salt that our body actually needs. Or more. To give you an example, consider the menu below, produced by Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH):

A day’s meals, choosing the saltiest food:

Breakfast – Quaker Oat Krunchies = 1.5g salt
2 slices M&S toast (weight not specified, but medium/large slice) = 2g
2 Sainsbury’s hot & spicy sausages (114g) and tomatoes = 2.84g

Snack – A third portion of Marks and Spencer’s pork and egg pie (147g) = 1.84g

Lunch – 1/2 large Lidl Giant Pepperoni and Ham Pizza (293g) = 5.12g

Dinner – Seeds of Change Organic Tomato Soup (350g) = 4.46g
2 Tesco smoked salmon fish cakes (180g) and vegetables = 3.60g

This totals 21.36g for a day or over 3 times the 6g a day daily recommended target.

So what? Well, it’s unhealthy. Very unhealthy. Eating too much salt raises your blood pressure, which puts extra stress on your vital organs. A salty diet means that heart attacks, strokes, dementia and kidney disease become more likely.

As the menu above illustrates, there’s a lot of salt in processed food, and not necessarily the kinds of processed food you might expect to be salty such as pizzas, chips, crisps, etc. Watch out for breakfast cereal and bread. Dark rye bread can have as much as 1.2g of salt per slice! 

But take a look at another menu, again provided by CASH:

A day’s meals, choosing the least salty food

Breakfast – Iceland wholewheat fruit and nut muesli (50g portion) = trace
2 slices toast (Sainsbury’s medium sliced white bread)* (25g) = 0.5g
2 Co-op Lincolnshire sausages (100g) and tomatoes = 1.0g

Snack – 1 Somerfield Pork pie (63g – medium sized pie) = 0.95g

Lunch – 1/2 large Somerfield funky food factory cheese and tomato deep pan Pizza (236g)** = 1.1g

Dinner – Joubere Chicken, pumpkin, jalapeno pepper chilli Soup (250g) = 0.13g
2 Somerfield fish cakes (84g)*** and vegetables = 0.84g

This totals 4.52g salt for a day, well within the 6g maximum

Similar categories of food (bread, cereals, soup, pizza, etc.) but much less salt. If you’re mindful, you can save yourself a whole heap of salt. But let’s back-up a minute. Look again at the first menu above. Why is there so much salt in that food? 21.36g in just one day. What purpose does it serve? It’s’ certainly not for survival – we only need 0.5g. MacGregor has an answer, and it’s unflinching: commercial reasons:

1. Taste – A burger manufacturer will take a patty that has almost no taste and “bring it up to the concentration of almost sea water”. Hmmm, nice. One consequence is that that saltiness will suppress your salt receptors so that a healthy meal with no taste won’t taste so good. Very important if you want children to complain that the healthy burger you’ve made with less salt doesn’t taste right and demand the salty-as-the-sea bought version.

2. Weight – Have you ever wondered why bacon leaks water when you fry it? When you combine polyphosphates to meat products you can bind in extra water (it creates a gel), increasing the weight by 20%. And you pay for that water!

3. Thirst – Salt makes you thirsty (remember, it is sodium and chloride in your blood that makes you thirsty not the taste of the product – which is why you can eat some food without thinking ‘wow, that’s salty’). If you’re thirsty, you’re going to drink more liquid, which is good news for the beer, soft drinks and water industries.

So, let’s recap: The food industry sells products that it knows are too salty. It does that so that consumers (and that includes children) will become used to overly salty products, eschew the healthier option and demand more of their product. And it guarantees additional profit once it injects its product with that polyphosphate/water gel. Kerching!

I listened to this episode of The Life Scientific as I pottered around my kitchen. I went to switch it off a couple of times but each time I reached for the off switch, MacGregor would say something even more damning. Eventually, after 27m 47s of scathing critique of the food industry, I switched it off. And muttered, you bastards!


Published by andrew