Salt: the rush to reduce

Casual dining chains are showing a “complete lack of commitment” to reduce salt in their menus, campaigners claim. But don’t tar everyone with the same brush, says David Burrows.

What’s the story? Action on Salt investigated the nutritional content of 351 children’s meals sold by chains in the out of home (OOH) sector, focusing on salt. They mainly used information available online, and where this wasn’t possible they sent requests for data to the companies. Twelve meals were also sent for laboratory analysis.

What did they find? A lot of salt: 145 (41%) of the meals were “high in salt” (that is, more than 1.8g per portion, which is the 2017 target for OOH children’s meals set by Public Health England, PHE). Perhaps more concerning, however, was the finding that progress on salt reduction seems to have stagnated: of the dishes assessed both this year and back in 2015, 40% now have more salt than four years ago, whilst in 20% there was no change. Also: 29% of the 218 meals surveyed in 2015 had 2g of salt or more per portion, compared to 37% of the 351 meals surveyed in 2019.

Are companies failing to act? Action on Salt thinks so. The results highlight the “complete lack of commitment” amongst casual dining chains, it said, and called for “high salt labels” on children’s meals with more than 1.8g of salt per portion and a commitment from the OOH sector to reduce salt across both children’s and adult meals.

Is the criticism fair? It’s difficult to say. The survey is quite small (though bigger than the government’s most recent assessment – see below) and 39% of the meals actually had less salt in them than in 2015. Still, a total of 26 major casual dining chains are covered. Of those, 14 are actively engaged in the government’s voluntary salt reduction programme, providing data against the 2017 targets. This begs the question: have those who are yet to get involved in the government’s programme skewed the results? And, if they have, does this prove the voluntary approach is not working?

What are the answers? In a separate analysis of the Action on Salt results by Footprint, OOH businesses that provided nutrition information to PHE as part of the first set of salt reduction targets (and listed on page 53 of this report) were shown to perform better than those who don’t appear to be engaged in the government’s programme. Of the 201 meals assessed by those submitting data to PHE, 65% contained salt below the 1.8g/portion target, compared to 50% of the 150 meals analysed from the other chains.

Meals assessedMeals above salt limit (1.8g/portion)Meals below salt limit
Engaged with reduction programme20170 (35%)131 (65%)
Not engaged with reduction programme15075 (50%)75 (50%)


Though those engaged with PHE have done better as a group, this doesn’t mean there are not success stories amongst those who haven’t submitted data: four of the five meals offered at Leon were below the 1.8g limit, whilst Subway managed three out of three.

 What does this all mean? Well, for a start, the claim that there is a “complete lack of commitment” on this from the sector is wrong. Action on Salt, to be fair, highlighted some of the meals with low salt content, but Footprint’s analysis reflects how each brand is performing. Some have no kids’ meals above the 1.8g – KFC, Jamie’s Italian and Subway. At other sites it’s increasingly hard to order a salt-laden dish – of the 22 kids’ meals offered across Whitbread’s Beefeater and Brewers Fayre pubs, only two overstepped the 1.8g mark. At McDonald’s only one of the 14 options went into the “red”, whilst at Wagamama it was only two out of 16.

So, it’s all good then? Not necessarily. Though some of the companies assessed by the campaigners will rightly feel hard done by, there are a number that have fallen way behind on reformulation. The likes of Burger King, JD Wetherspoon and Harvester, chains that offer a huge range of kids’ meals, struggled to ensure even half of them were below the limit (43%, 43% and 48% respectively). Wetherspoon said it’s working on this, with a couple of new dishes coming soon, but suggested it’s up to parents to “make their choice of meals on behalf of their children”. Though how they do so without an indication of salt content on the menus is impossible to say. GBK had only one meal of eight below the limit, whilst at Toby Carvery it was only three out of the 10 available. Some of those struggling with salt are also part of the reduction programme – Greene King’s Hungry Horse and Loch Fyne chains are both engaged with the government’s programme but close to half their meals are above the maximum (48% and 42% respectively).

But isn’t it early days on this? For the OOH sector, yes. Work on the salt content of food began in 2004. Since then voluntary reduction targets have been set four times, in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2014. However, OOH was only included in the last ones (the 1.8g for kids’ meals was one of the 11 targets). So, some firms will have held back and waited to see how the first set of targets went (and any media backlash at the results). However, this means – and indeed Footprint’s analysis shows – that they are already behind the curve. Working with the converted also gives the government’s voluntary approach a healthier glow than the reality: PHE actually found that 82% of the 131 kids’ meals it analysed ducked under the 1.8g limit, but what would the figure be if the programme reached much further than the usual suspects?

What’s next? By Easter, the government has committed to publish its next steps on salt reduction, including new targets. “Salt is one of the things you can take out of your offers over time,” says Jo Nicholas, PHE’s team leader for dietary improvement. “Businesses have told us that it works because people’s palates do adapt to less salty foods.” It pays to tread carefully, of course, but with Nicholas also admitting that the first targets were “generous”, the longer firms hold off taking action the harder it will get to meet the thresholds set. And their lack of engagement won’t just annoy campaigners or ministers. Customers won’t accept big changes overnight. And it surely won’t be long before the chains that are removing salt get fed up with being tarred with the same brush and begin lobbying for regulations to level the playing field.

Below is Footprint’s analysis of the Action on Salt results.

Meals assessedMeals above salt limit (1.8g/portion)Meals below salt limitBelow salt but high in fat or saturates“Healthy” meals for kidsSubmitted data to PHE
Ask Italian63312Y
Brewers Fayre1111046Y
Burger King148606N
Frankie & Benny’s32101Y
Hungry Horse401921714Y
Jamie’s Italian12012012Y
JD Wetherspoon2112927N
Loch Fyne125725Y
Pizza Express94514N
Pizza Hut482622418Y
Slug & Lettuce1651156N
Toby Carvery107303N



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