Food and diet

High salt in breakfast foods

Extensive coverage has been given today to news that common breakfast foods such as pastries and muffins, contain high levels of “hidden” salt. Many sources, including The Guardian , The Sun and the BBC, said that foods which people commonly think are healthy are not. The Guardian says many people know that fry-ups are unhealthy, but fewer know that pastries from high street coffee chains can contain a significant amount of the recommended daily allowance of six grams. The Sun reports that a Starbucks cinnamon swirl is as salty as two rashers of bacon, and a Costa Coffee muffin has three times more salt than a packet of crisps.

Where did the story come from?

The stories are based on a survey by Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH); a group of specialists concerned about how much salt we eat and its effects on our health. CASH has previously worked with the government’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) to assess how much salt is contained in processed foods. The group surveyed over 200 breakfast items between June and October 2008, obtaining information from product labels, company websites and customer services. Food outlets that they looked at included Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Caffe Nero, Pret A Manger, EAT, McDonalds and Burger King, and cooked breakfast outlets in south-west London.

What is the issue?

Although many people know they need to limit their intake of sugar and saturated fat, salt is often overlooked. There's a perception that not adding salt to food is enough to keep within safe levels. But 75% of the salt we consume is already present in the food we buy.

The RDA for salt is six grams a day, but people in the UK consume about 8.6g a day. (This is an average and many exceed this level.)

The key point from the survey is that one breakfast can take you over the six-grams-a-day allowance. It found that a traditional English fry-up can contain your entire recommended daily salt intake. A surprising finding was that many croissants, pastries and muffins have more salt than a rasher of bacon (roughly 0.8g). The saltiest was the Starbucks cinnamon swirl with a 1.74g salt content – equivalent to two rashers of bacon. Adding the latté pushes this up to 2.1g. All American-style muffins contained as much as a standard bag of crisps (0.5g). Costa’s raspberry and white chocolate muffin had the highest content of those tested.

Also surprising was that foods regarded as healthier may be disguising high salt levels. A breakfast of coffee, orange juice, a standard bowl of Kellogg’s Cornflakes and two slices of toast with butter and marmite contains half the daily allowance of salt.

Why is salt bad for you?

Salt is filtered in the kidneys and has an effect on regulating blood pressure in the body. Raised salt levels can lead to an increase in blood pressure and this increases the risk of cardiovascular disease such as coronary artery disease and stroke.

What should I do?

Reduce your salt intake. A Cochrane review found that a modest reduction in salt intake for four weeks or more has a significant effect on blood pressure. This occurs in both people with normal blood pressure and those with high blood pressure.

The CASH researchers say cooked breakfasts don’t have to be completely off the menu if you watch what you eat. One egg with tomatoes, mushrooms and one slice of toast and butter contains less than 0.7g salt. Limit your intake of bacon, sausages, baked beans with added salt, and black pudding.

When buying packaged cereals and other foods, look at the salt content wherever possible. When eating away from home in restaurants, nutritional information is often not openly available. But it can usually be obtained directly from the outlet or from a company website.

The full results of CASH's survey are on its website. This includes tables showing the saltiest and better breakfast choices in each food type category for different coffee shops. The FSA website, Salt, contains helpful information on reducing your own and your family's salt intake.

NHS Attribution