Salt study shifts perceptions in shopping aisle

Salt study shifts perceptions in shopping aisle

Australia’s largest study comparing supermarket private label products with equivalent branded foods has produced some unexpected results, with the average salt content significantly lower in the supermarket private label brands.

Head of the Food Policy Division at the George Institute for Global Health, Professor Bruce Neal, said the study, which was published in Nutrients, armed consumers with important new information to make healthier food choices.

“When it comes to food, knowledge really is power and research like this gives shoppers and their families more control over their diets,” Prof Neal said.

“Excess salt in food leads to high blood pressure and greatly increased risks of stroke and heart attack.

“Reducing salt in line with World Health Organisations recommendations could save thousands of lives every year and hundreds of millions of dollars in healthcare costs.

“Consumers find it hard to choose healthier foods because labelling is often confusing.

“The exciting thing about this research is that it shows supermarkets can lead the way if they want to.”

Lead Author Helen Trevena, from the George Institute, said the study could shift perceptions in the supermarket aisles.

“The general opinion among consumers is that supermarket brands are of an inferior quality, but this research shows that is not always the case in regard to salt,” Ms Trevena said.

“We looked at thousands of products across the major supermarket chains in 2011 and 2013 and found that when it comes to salt content, supermarket private label products can be a lower salt option.

“This is good news, especially for families shopping on tight budgets who are more likely to buy private label products, but are also most likely to suffer from health problems caused by high blood pressure.”

In the study, A Comparison of the Sodium Content of Supermarket Private-Label and Branded Foods in Australia:

  • 15,680 products were analysed across 15 major food categories.
  • For the three years from 2011 to 2013, the salt content of supermarket private label products was consistently lower than that of branded equivalents. In 2013 salt content was an average 17% lower.
  • In 2013 the average salt content in supermarket private label products was lower by 27% in desserts, 24% in biscuits, 22% in processed meats and 7% in breads, but was 37% higher in breakfast cereals.
  • There were small and comparable reductions in average salt content for supermarket private label products (6%) and branded foods (3%) between 2011 and 2013.
  • New supermarket private label foods introduced to the market during the study were also on average lower in salt than branded products.

Professor Neal said the research didn’t compare overall nutritional value, so consumers should still judge each food product on its merits.

“Salt is important, but it’s one of many nutrients that people should consider and compare when making healthy food choices,” he said.

“However, this research is potentially a great help to people with high blood pressure who need to try to choose low salt options.

“An easy way to find healthier food items is to download our FoodSwitch app, which lets users scan the barcode of any packaged food and then shows easy-to-understand nutritional information as well as alternative healthier choices.

“Of course, it’s also important to follow the Australian Dietary Guidelines which recommend eating fewer desserts and biscuits, while eating more fruit and vegetables.”

The study has been published in Nutrients.