UK lobby group survey decries “astonishingly high salt content” in children’s meals

UK lobby group survey decries “astonishingly high salt content” in children’s meals

05 Mar 2019 --- Children’s meals in several popular UK restaurant chains contain “astonishingly high” amounts of salt, according to a nationwide product survey endorsed by lobby group Action on Salt. The survey findings show that some dishes have almost as much salt as an adult’s entire daily recommended limit and that 41 percent of dishes contained more salt than the Public Health England (PHE) 2017 target. The group is calling for high salt warning labels on children’s menu dishes with more than 1.8g of salt per serving. In response, some restaurants chains have questioned the validity of the lobby group’s testing methods, and have reaffirmed their commitment to salt reduction targets.

In light of Salt Awareness Week (4-10 March 2019), Action on Salt suggests that parents should be aware of the salt content in children’s meals via labeling and note the potentially adverse effects of high salt diets. Additionally, it is urging the restaurant sector to reduce salt in both children’s and adults’ meals.

“Cutting down on salt in early life is crucial so that children can establish healthier dietary habits early, reducing the risk of developing health complications later on. Liking salt and salty foods is an acquired preference and the recommendation that the adult population reduces their salt intake will be more successful if children do not develop a preference for salt in the first place,” Sonia Pombo, Nutritionist for Action on Salt tells NutritionInsight

Of the 351 meals examined, 145 (41 percent) were high in salt with roughly 2g of salt per portion. The lobby group says that if color-coded labels used in supermarkets were used in the restaurant sector, these meals would have a red label for their high salt content. 

TGI Friday’s meal Chicken Burger with crispy fries and baked beans was reportedly the meal with the highest salt content with 5.3g per portion. Wetherspoons’ Fish, Chips and Baked Beans came in second in the ranking with 4.9g, followed by Chiqito’s Quesadilla Pizza with Baked Beans with 4.3g, GBK’s Junior Cheeseburger with Skinny fries with 4.3g and Pizza Hut’s Big Heroes Chicken and Cheese wrap with fries with 4.07g.

The popular restaurant chains deny the claims, with a TGI Fridays’ spokesperson telling NutritionInsight: “We strongly dispute the findings of the Action on Salt survey as independent nutritional analysis has shown our kids chicken burger meal to contain 1.5g of salt, not 5.3g as cited in the report. This is all the more disappointing as we have long supported the government's salt reduction program since 2012 with a focus on children's meals. We will continue with our work on salt reduction across all our menus as well as other nutrients in support of the government's ambition to tackle childhood obesity.”

“Pizza Hut Restaurants has invested heavily in salt reduction and we remain committed to further reductions, without compromising on the taste of our food. We detail all nutritional information about our food on our website and our kids’ menu offers options which are lower in salt, signposted as our ‘Hut Heroes’ options, to help parents make an informed choice,” a Pizza Hut spokesperson tells NutritionInsight.

NutritionInsight has also reached out to Chiquito’s, GBK and Wetherspoons. 

Reducing salt is a shared responsibility between the food industry, individuals and the government and is the most cost-effective measure to reduce the number of people dying or suffering from entirely unnecessary strokes and heart disease, says Pombo.

“The UK has had success with salt reduction in the past when the food industry worked towards voluntary targets which were set across a range of processed food. This led to a reduction in the average amount of salt the UK population ate each day,” she notes.

However, since then progress has slowed and Action on Salt encourages the UK Secretary of State for Health to announce salt reduction plans in his green paper, which is due in April 2019. “If the targets were made mandatory, this would formalize the salt reduction strategy and ensure progress is sustained, with huge cost savings to the NHS,” Pombo says.

What consumers can do
Many products sold in supermarkets now have front-of-pack color-coded nutrition labeling which highlights the levels of salt, fat and sugars. This can be useful to consumers in making a more informed choice as the information is clear and available at point of purchase. 

“So if a product is high in salt for example, then it is given a red label. We encourage all shoppers to choose products which have more green and amber labels instead,” Pombo notes.

“When eating out, this information can be difficult to find, if available at all,” she says. Pombo suggests that consumers should ask for no salt to be added to their dish and ask for sauces, dressings and gravy to be served on the side so they can choose how much to add. “Dishes with olives, cured meats and cheese will be saltier, but side dishes such as fresh vegetables, corn on the cob or jacket potatoes will be less salty.” 

Consumers should take personal responsibility and “use apps, such as the free FoodSwitch app, to compare products and find the healthier option. It’s time for the out of home sector to take responsibility and offer us the same level of information,” says Zoe Davies, Nutritionist for Action on Salt and FoodSwitch. 

Should policymakers take action?
Reducing salt is a shared responsibility between the food industry, individuals and governments, and is the most cost-effective measure to reduce the number of people dying or suffering from entirely unnecessary strokes and heart disease according to Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chair of Action on Salt.

“The Secretary of State for Health has promised long-awaited new voluntary salt reduction plans in his green paper by Easter 2019, and they can’t come soon enough,” he says.

The UK pioneered a salt reduction strategy in the early 2000s, whereby the Food Standards Agency (FSA) set incremental salt targets across a range of processed food to guide the food industry to slowly reduce the huge and unnecessary amounts of salt they add to food, explains Pombo. “This resulted in a decrease in UK population salt intake, a fall in average blood pressure and a drop in deaths from strokes and heart disease. This strategy has since helped shape similar programs across the globe.”

“In 2010, however, the responsibility for salt reduction was switched to the Department of Health and the food industry was made responsible for policing itself, a policy that unsurprisingly failed,” she says. 

“Further salt reduction targets were set to be achieved by the end of 2017 but little action has been taken to ensure the food industry is meeting these targets,” Pombo concludes. 

By Kristiana Lalou

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