Fast foods now lower in salt

Fast foods are becoming less salty, but high salt levels remaining in chain pizzas, sandwiches and burgers show the need for government leadership to support fast food companies to do more, Australian researchers say.

In a four-year study of six Australian fast food chains, researchers from The George Institute for Global Health found fast foods have become lower in salt at the rate of about two to three per cent per year. Their study was published today in the Medical Journal of Australia.

Senior author Dr Elizabeth Dunford, from The George Institute for Global Health (TGI) and the University of Sydney, said: “Despite the small reduction, salt levels in Australian fast food remain high. These small reductions in salt levels could be easily undone by the trend towards larger portion sizes.”

“While the direction of the change in salt levels in Australian fast foods is promising, there is an urgent need for a sector-wide strategy that will deliver further falls in the short term, said Dr Dunford.

“While individual companies may deliver moderate improvements to their products, there is little evidence that significant sector-wide improvements can be achieved without government engagement.”

She said Australia should adopt a strategy similar to the UK’s salt reduction programme, where strong Government engagement had resulted in lower salt levels than other countries.

The average Australian consumes 9 grams of salt a day.  The Australian Government recommends no more than 1,600mg of sodium a day, the amount found in 4 grams or about a teaspoon of salt.

The study looked at Pizza Hut, Hungry Jack’s, KFC, McDonald’s, Subway and Domino’s products, using figures provided on company websites.

Overall sodium content across all items offered by major chains fell by 43mg/100g. Most product categories had lower mean sodium levels per 100g and per serve in 2012 compared to 2009. Sodium levels in side dishes, however, rose over the four years.

“But Australians can still consume their entire daily salt intake in one burger alone. This scenario is not rare - there were a number of burgers, pizzas, breakfasts, chicken sides and sandwiches that provided more than 1,600mg of sodium per serve,” Dr Dunford said.

“For example, the burger with the most salt in the study, the Hungry Jack's Ultimate Double Whopper, contained 2514mg of sodium in 2010. That’s the equivalent of more than 1.5 teaspoons of salt – and we should be aiming for only one teaspoon of salt, maximum, per day.”

“And although the bite-sized chicken bits and other chicken side dishes were found to be lower in salt per serve, who eats just one? Per 100g, they had the highest salt content overall.”

During the four-year study, Pizza Hut was the only company where sodium levels rose in food products, mainly due to side dishes such as chicken bites and large serving sizes in 2012.

The fact that sodium levels in KFC products decreased at the same time, even though both Pizza Hut and KFC are both owned by same company, Yum! Restaurants, lead Dr Dunford to observe: “This could indicate that there is a lack of coordinated effort to improve the healthiness of foods in many large corporations, and an absence of Government leadership in this area.”

“Salt reduction remains one of the most cost-effective options for improving public health in Australia and many other countries,” Dr Dunford said.

Dr Dunford called for:

  • Stronger Federal Government engagement
  • A comprehensive and transparent target setting process
  • Regular reporting metrics