Food and diet

Bread 'often high in hidden salt'

“Popular loaves of bread contain as much salt in every slice as a packet of crisps and some are as salty as seawater,” The Daily Telegraph has today reported. These estimates are based on a survey on the salt content of bread, conducted by the Campaign for Action on Salt and Health (CASH).

The key findings of the CASH survey were that one in four loaves of bread contained as much salt per slice as a packet of crisps and that bread contributes a fifth of many people’s daily salt intake. Freshly baked bread also tended to have higher salt content than pre-packaged varieties, and a few brands contained more than one third of a person’s recommended daily limit of salt per 100g eaten. The highest salt levels were found in bread from high street chain bakeries.

What is CASH?

CASH is an action group and registered charity concerned with salt and its effects on health. The group works with the food industry and government to reduce the amount of salt in processed foods, as well as providing the public with information on the harmful effects of excess salt and ways to reduce the amount of salt in their diet.

The group conducts regular reviews of different types of foodstuff. In addition to the latest, the Bread Survey, they have published surveys on topics such as pies, sausages and breakfast cereals, as well as their Valentine’s Survey on the salt content of typical Valentine’s meals and potential effects on the heart.

What did the Bread Survey look at?

The Bread Survey was conducted in July 2011 and examined the salt found in a wide range of bread products sold by supermarkets and five high street bakery chains. In total, it looked at 294 loaves of bread, including all available packaged loaves of bread and branded products, as well as a sample of supermarkets’ and bakeries’ own-brand standard white and standard wholemeal loaves. Product data for packaged bread were collected in store and from company websites.

To assess the salt content of bread products, CASH report using company websites and scientific analyses conducted by a public analyst (Kent Scientific Services). They categorised products into four types:

  • white standard loaves
  • wholemeal standard loaves
  • brown loaves – including brown, granary, wheatgerm, seeded, oats and ‘50/50’ mixed flour loaves
  • other loaves - including speciality breads, ethnic breads, rye and sourdough

Which bread had the highest salt levels?

There were wide variations in the salt content of bread, with salt content per 100g ranging from 0.58g to 2.83g.

The five packaged breads with the highest salt content per 100g were:

  • Cranks seeded farmhouse: 2.03g
  • Vogel original mixed grain: 1.38g
  • ASDA chosen by you bakers gold white farmhouse (400g loaf): 1.2g
  • Marks & Spencer eat well multigrain bloomer made with 30% grains: 1.15g
  • Morrisons thick sunflower & pumpkin loaf (400g loaf): 1.1g

CASH says that it can be even more difficult for consumers to assess salt content when fresh bread is sold without packaging labels, and that supermarkets’ unlabelled in-store bakery bread generally has higher salt content than their packaged bread. There were sometimes differences of more than half a gram between similar products. In some cases bread from premium high street bakery chains was found to have more than three times as much salt per 100g as bread baked in supermarkets.

The five bakery breads with the highest salt content per 100g were:

  • Paul pain de campagne (brown): 2.83g
  • Paul pain ancien (white): 1.85g
  • Paul pain complet (brown): 1.43g
  • Le Pain Quotidien blanc de campagne (white): 1.41g
  • Gregg’s large sandwich (white): 1.39g

Which bread had the lowest salt levels?

The five packaged breads with the lowest salt content per 100g were:

  • Marks & Spencer simply more eat well healthiest white bread: 0.58g
  • Tesco stayfresh white sliced bread medium: 0.6g
  • Marks & Spencer eat well oaty bloomer made with 30% oats: 0.65g
  • Marks & Spencer toasting white: 0.73g
  • Sainsbury’s medium wholemeal: 0.74g

CASH says that although salt levels were still too high, they found promising signs that salt levels in bread have come down by a third (30%) in the last 10 years, with some breads being reduced by more than 40%. Notably, Tesco value medium sliced wholemeal bread has had its salt content lowered by 43% in the last 10 years (from 1.75g to 1.0g per 100g) and Sainsbury's medium wholemeal loaf is now 41% lower in salt (from 1.25g in 2001 to 0.74g per 100g).

Some of the bread manufacturers featured in this report have responded to the survey. The bakery Paul said following the report that they will be reducing the salt content of their UK breads by 14%, and Cranks said that it will continue to review the salt content of its bread.

How much salt should we eat?

The UK Food Standards Agency has set the maximum recommended daily salt intake for adults at 6 grams per day. The recommended maximums for children are generally lower:

  • less than 1g per day for babies under 6 months of age
  • 1g per day for those aged 7-12 months
  • 2g per day for 1-3 year olds
  • 3g per day for 4-6 year olds
  • 5g per day for 7-10 year olds
  • 6g per day for children aged 11 or above, the same maximum level as for adults

How much salt do we currently eat?

CASH reports that we are eating an average of 8.6 grams per day. This figure is based on a 2008 study published in a report by the Medical Research Council and National Centre for Social Research, conducted in UK adults aged 19-64. The study collected 24-hour urine samples in order to measure concentrations of sodium (a chemical component of salt) in urine to estimate participants’ salt intake. The 294 men in the sample had estimated intakes of 9.7g per day, and 398 women had intakes of 7.7g, giving the combined average for men and women of 8.6g per day. This estimate of current UK salt intake should therefore be considered with some caution given that the results are representative of a very small proportion of the UK population and that it is based on a one-off measure.

However, as previous CASH surveys have shown, certain processed foods can contain relatively high proportions of our daily salt limit, and even seemingly innocuous foodstuffs such as coffee and hot chocolate can contribute towards salt intake.

CASH does not cite any studies estimating current daily salt intakes of children and adolescents. A recently published analysis of a 1991/92 observational survey of parents of 8-month-olds found that babies were consuming in excess of 0.4g of salt per day, with an average of more than 1g. The study associated higher salt intake with higher bread consumption. However, caution should be applied to these findings since they reflect the situation seen 20 years ago.

What are the risks of too much salt in the diet?

The long-term effect of having too much salt in the body is increased blood pressure. This can then increase the risk of cardiovascular disease such as stroke, coronary artery disease and heart failure.

Some argue that giving children and adolescents too much salt is likely to make them continue to eat a high salt and unhealthy diet as they grow, making them more likely to become obese and develop higher blood pressure in adulthood. Furthermore, the kidneys of babies and younger children are actually unable to filter salt as well as those of adults. This increases their risk of water retention and kidney problems.

How can I tell how much salt is in food?

Dr Layward, a spokesperson for The Stroke Association is aptly quoted by CASH, saying that “many people recognise that too much salt can be bad for them” but that the difficulty lies in knowing how much salt we are actually eating. This can especially be a problem with many products, such as bread, that do not taste salty, or products that do not have labels stating the salt levels in them. It is hard to know how much salt we eat on a daily basis.

However, many foods do list their salt content on their packaging, so it is worth checking labels to see what proportion of a daily limit a food provides. Occasionally, food products will list salt content in terms of sodium, the chemical component in salt that causes effects such as a rise in blood pressure. There are 2.4g of sodium in 6g of salt.

How can I reduce my salt intake?

As well as consulting food labels there are simple steps you can take to cut your salt intake. For example, try tasting food before deciding to add salt or looking for reduced salt varieties.

CASH says the public should look at labels and choose bread products that contain a maximum of 1g of salt per 100g, or about 0.4g per slice. They also highlight that speciality breads, such as rye, which are often perceived as healthier options, can be deceptively high in salt.

CASH’s other ‘top tips’ for reducing salt intake include:

  • choosing low-salt fillings for sandwiches, such as chicken, tuna, plain cheese spreads or mozzarella, and salad
  • swapping beans on toast for scrambled eggs or mushrooms on toast (baked beans can contain relatively high levels of salt)
  • avoiding salty spreads such as mustard, marmite, salted butter and pickle
  • sticking to medium sliced loaves rather than thick, and being careful not to cut bread too thickly if it is bought unsliced
  • making your own bread at home with no salt

NHS Attribution