Many chilled sliced meats sold in UK are saltier than Atlantic Ocean

Watch: Salty food 'killing 14,000 a year'

A quarter (25%) of chilled sliced meats sold in the UK are saltier than Atlantic seawater, new research by campaigners reveals.

Action on Salt, based at Queen Mary University of London, surveyed hundreds of sliced meat products – across ham, beef, poultry and charcuterie – from all the major retailers it could source information from.

It also found two thirds (65%) of all chilled sliced meat, including ham, chicken, corned beef and salami, sold by major grocery retailers are dangerously high in salt – at 1.5g per 100g or more.

One in three (35%) are failing to meet the national salt reduction targets, which aim to continue to gradually decrease the levels of salt in foods that contribute the most salt to our diet. However, these targets are described by Mhairi Brown, Policy and Public Affairs Manager for Action on Salt, as having "stagnated" progress in the UK.

Proportion (%) of retailer own label chilled sliced meat products meeting respective salt targets. Total number of products displayed at the end of each bar (Action on Salt)
Proportion (%) of retailer own label chilled sliced meat products meeting respective salt targets. Total number of products displayed at the end of each bar (Action on Salt, Queen Mary University of London)

Sonia Pombo, Campaign Manager for Action on Salt, said, "Why are these everyday sliced meats, which are frequently consumed by children, so high in salt when it is clearly not required for taste or food safety?"

Due to the group's discoveries, it is now calling for mandated salt reduction targets for all products containing salt to be enforced (and reviewed regularly) by the government, to create a much-needed level playing field. It believes failure to comply should be penalised.

Tesco is leading the retailers in compliance with the targets at 97%, compared to Waitrose at just 7%.

Examples of higher and lower salt products (Action on Salt, Queen Mary University of London)
Examples of higher and lower salt products (Action on Salt, Queen Mary University of London)

The survey found that food manufacturers are lagging behind in particular, with only one in three (37%) of their chilled sliced meat products achieving their respective salt targets, compared to two in three (69%) of retailer's own label products.

Action on Salt found the salt content varies drastically across all products surveyed, with a huge 23-fold difference. There is also a wide variation across each of the different types of chilled sliced meat.

For example, within poultry, Aldi's Flame Grilled Chicken Slices has 0.26g per 100g, while their saltiest product, Adlington Cooked Sliced Free Range British Turkey has 2.5g per 100g – the same as seawater.

Atlantic seawater contains 1.0g of sodium per 100g, which is the same as 2.5g of salt per 100g.

Read more: Food manufacturers accused of ignoring 'killer' salt levels

Kosher Salt Spilled from a Spice Jar
1 in 4 of chilled sliced meats sold in the UK are saltier than Atlantic seawater, new research by campaigners reveals (Getty Images)

While salt per suggested portion size as stated on the pack averages at 0.6g, portion sizes are inconsistent, ranging from just one slice to half a packet across food companies.

For example, M&S' British Wiltshire Roast Ham has 1.73g of salt per potion (3 slices) – nearly one third (29%) of an adult's and more than half (58%) of a child's (4-6 years old) maximum recommended daily salt limit. If consumed as part of a single sandwich, this would contribute almost half (45%) of an adult's daily salt limit, Action on Salt reports.

Adults should eat no more than 6g of salt a day (around 1 teaspoon), while children aged 1-3 should eat no more than 2g, 4-6 no more than 3g, 7-10 no more than 5g and 11+ no more than 6g. Babies shouldn't eat much salt at all, because their kidneys are not fully developed to process it – they should have under 1g a day.

Read more: The diet mistakes that could be killing us

The research also found that many chilled sliced meat products with the highest overall salt content are exempt from the UK's voluntary salt targets, predominantly charcuterie meats and traditionally cured hams, all of which still vary in salt content.

For example, Sainsbury's Italian Prosciutto Crudo has 5.51g of salt per 100g (more than twice of seawater), compared to Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Italian Prosciutto Di Speck, which has 30% less salt at 3.89g/100g.

Action on Salt points out that this demonstrates vastly reduced levels of salt are achievable, even in challenging products.

Watch: Small changes make a huge difference when it comes to healthy eating

Sonia Pombo added, "Whilst some salt may be needed in processed meat, there is scope for extensive reductions, as demonstrated by some of the more responsible companies. There's no excuse. Other manufacturers must now follow their lead and put their customer's health first."

Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London, and Chairman of Action on Salt, said, "Reducing salt is the most cost-effective measure to lower blood pressure and reduce the number of people suffering from strokes and heart disease and life changing disabilities associated with this – all of which is completely avoidable.

"It's a disgrace that food companies continue to fill our food with so much salt when there is the option to reformulate, which our research shows can easily be done. The government needs to force the industry to comply, to ensure that many thousands of people don't die unnecessarily."

Young Asian mother grocery shopping with little daughter and choosing for fresh fish in the supermarket
There's no excuse for products to not comply with salt reduction targets, highlights Action on Salt (Getty Images)

Action on Salt has reached out to food companies in response to its report.

A Tesco spokesperson said: "The health of our customers is very important to us and we’ve worked hard to reduce salt across our own brand foods.

"At Tesco we have been reformulating our products for some time and we will continue to do so without compromising on taste or quality."

Emma Williams, Partner and Health Manager, Waitrose, said: "We work closely with our suppliers to make continuous nutritional improvements to our products, including the significant reduction of salt across a number of categories... We know we have more to do on salt reduction in this area and are actively working to meet the 2024 targets set by Public Health England, making sure any changes do not compromise on taste or quality."

Rebecca Brown, Senior Nutritionist, Marks & Spencer, said: "We make healthy eating easier through provision of accessible customer information and clear on-pack labelling, including our Eat Well sunflower to signpost healthy choices. This is underpinned by a programme of reformulation to continually improve the nutritional profile of our foods by removing or reducing levels of unnecessary or unwanted ingredients such as saturated fat and salt.

"We are committed to delivering further salt reductions, not only in our M&S cooked sliced meat ranges, but across all our M&S food ranges to meet the UK Department of Health 2024 salt targets."

A Sainsbury's spokesperson also told Yahoo Life UK:

"We clearly label all our products to help customers make informed decisions about the products that they buy. We use traditional curing methods for these products which rely on the presence of salt to ensure quality and shelf life.

"We are committed to developing and delivering healthy and sustainable diets for all."