/ Food & Drink, Health

‘One of your five-a-day’ – plus 40% of your salt allowance!

Close up of a ready meal

Some supermarket ready meals use five-a-day logos on their labels, even though they contain high levels of salt, sugar or saturated fat. Would you expect to see a five-a-day label on fatty or salty foods?

I thought I was pretty good at reading labels when I’m in the supermarket and deciding which products deserve a space in my shopping basket. It turns out that I still have a lot to learn, because I put my faith in the ‘five-a-day’ logos that appear on lots of different products.

My mistake was expecting that any product using a ‘five-a-day’ logo would be good for me. It’s got one of my recommended portions of fruit or vegetables in it, so it must be filled with vitamins and general healthy goodness. Right?

In a new investigation, we have found that some supermarket ready meals claiming to contain one or more portions of your five-a-day also contain a few surprises. Surprises like almost half your guideline daily amount (GDA) of salt. Or levels of saturated fat that would be high enough to earn a red traffic light on a nutrition label.

Help with healthy choices

Eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day helps us maintain a balanced diet. The five-a-day logo is supposed to be all about helping food shoppers make healthy choices. If that’s really the case, surely it should not appear on a 380g ready meal that contains 37.5g of sugar.

I am genuinely surprised by our findings. I had no idea that food products could use a five-a-day logo even when they are high in saturated fat, salt or sugar.

It looks as though I’m going to have to start looking even more carefully at food labels. Especially if they claim to contain one of my five-a-day. I guess my trips to the supermarket are going to take even longer!

Do you think it’s acceptable for five-a-day’ logos to be used on products that would have red traffic light labels for sugar, salt or saturated fat? Are you surprised by our findings too?


Anyone who over-indulges in beer could point out that it can be a useful source of vitamins and minerals, contains little fat or salt and (in some cases) sugar. Unfortunately, we need to think about the energy contribution and the harmful effects of consuming too much alcohol.

It would be difficult to label foods as healthy or unhealthy because what matters is our overall diet rather than individual foods. Although it is unfortunate that a ready meal is loaded with salt, if it is shown as contributing a portion of fruit/veg it probably does.

I see three important issues relating to salt in foods:

1. We should be referring to the sodium content rather than salt content because sodium is what matters and salt is only one source of sodium. For example, monosodium glutamate is a common component of ready meals. I understand the EU will make this a requirement.

2. Bread is an important source of sodium in many people’s diets, yet none of the bread that I buy has any nutritional information.

3. Alternatives to table salt (branded low salt etc) are readily available. These typically contain a mixture of potassium chloride and sodium chloride (whereas table salt contains just the latter). Using potassium chloride in prepared foods could help cut our intake of sodium with little effect on flavour.

4. Using salt is very much a habit for many people, like taking sugar in tea/coffee. If children are brought up not to add salt, they will not miss it.

NukeThemAll says:
18 February 2013

I agree with all that you say Wavechange, especially the need to concentrate on sodium. Some cake products have shockingly-high leves of sodium, from the ‘baking powder’ (sodium bicarbonate) – culprits are often muffins. (And, no, a blueberry muffin does not count towards your 5 a day, folks!)

However, the problem with using salt substitues such as ‘Lo-Salt’ which is 2/3 potassium chloride, is that many people (myself included) cannot taste the potassium chloride very much – some people hardly at all. Some people can taste it but to them it leaves a strange ‘tang’ which can be unpleasant. I use it when baking my own bread and find substituting for the same mass of salt gives bread which tastes a bit bland but is perfectly acceptable.

I know some people leave salt out all together from home-baked bread (no need to change recipes, I’ve tried it myself, just omit the salt)

Thanks NukeThemAll. I use little salt substitute and had not really appreciated the difference in flavour or that people respond differently.

Another factor is that people are affected differently by sodium, so its most important that those who are sensitive keep an eye on their intake.

I regret we ignore the 5 a day as an instruction and buy food that we believe gives us a balanced diet. It includes fresh meat, fruit and vegetables as well as ready meals (but not of the value variety and from a hopefully reputable retailer). So I suppose I am a logo-sceptic.
I do agree about the salt habit which I have, although I long ago dropped the sugar habit in tea and coffee.
Salt, fat and sugar seem to be added to processed food that needs extra flavour because, presumably, the underlying food is not that great. Easily sorted by eating more fresh food – and not difficult to make tasty nutritious meals that are inexpensive and don’t need much in the way of flavour-enhancers. Schools should teach boys and girls how to do this so they can tell some of their mums.

No, I wouldn’t expect any of the ingredients to exceed 20% of the recommended daily intake.

Although “five-a-day” doesn’t mean you should eat five of the same item – 5 apples, say – no one product should grab more than a 5th of its fair share of unhealthy ingredients.

Brittany P. Hirsch says:
20 February 2013

Salt and sodium are “hidden” in a lot of the foods we love. Experts remind parents to look at the sodium levels in kids’ meals, as they can also be dangerously high and demand that your food providers offer low sodium options.

The trouble for me is that I have completely lost faith in what the supermarkets and manufacturers tell us is in food products. If they can do what they have done by including the most vile ingredients in the so-called value ranges of meat – and I dont mean just horse meat or pork in beef products, but the bits and bobs they add to fat to up the protein content, they can and will do anything to make a fast buck. as consumers we are being lied to consistently.

Nowadays we take the line that supermarkets ( and other companies ) are not to be trusted. Therefore labels, pricing claims and quantities within are not taken for granted. For as long time now we only buy food which has not been processed, as much as possible. Cheaper cuts of meat which are tougher are slow cooked, and whenever we can we buy fruits from a market stall. You can make excellent meals at low cost, paying attention to the “five-a-day”. Maybe its a fair guideline at the moment to avoid factory processed foods, especially re the horse meat scandal. As someone said on TV, “If there’s horse meat in beef, what else is in it?”. At the moment the government agencies are not actively looking for problems in the food supply but “Rely on information”.( quote from CH4 TV ) So I say no wonder we are seeing problems. Industry reps put their point of view across directly to MP’s and committees formulating legislation, thus bending the legislation to their own ends. If it didn’t work they would not be employed!
To me the industry seems to have lost its way, and has certainly lost sight of the idea of looking after its customers. The be-all and end-all is profit with scant regard to any other worthwhile considerations.

I think to assume all supermarkets will deceive you is going too far. We use one that currently I still trust (nothing reportedly wrong) who don’t supply over-processed food. What I think is the problem are the so-called value foods – driven down to a price. So many intermediaries involved making a profit that you cannot expect value for money – just cheap junk.
Market stalls? Not sure – our local market has a fish stall, all in the open (on ice) but still flies, and what happens to the unsold fish? The same with meat. I’m not sure I would trust the source of food to markets any more than anyone else.

I would never follow an advertising slogan which is what “five-a-day” is; something plucked out of the air to help Californian fruit growers but we, as usual, have to follow the USA. As someone has said before, eat a balanced diet, also ditch sugar in all its many forms and make sure that you look at labels as sugar/fructose/corn syrup is in everything! That’s where a lot of people put on weight because of the additional sugar. Rarely use salt and still eat butter – there is nothing wrong with it. It’s all the hydrogenated everything else that’s a no-no.

I don’t think you will find much hydrogenated vegetable oil (the source of trans-fats) in food sold in the UK. It was a problem, but that is history.

However, butter contains plenty of saturated fat – which will clog up arteries as it always has done. Like sugar in its many forms, it is not good to eat much of it.

The benefits of eating fruit and vegetables are well established, though the ‘five-a-day’ is rather arbitrary since there are many different combinations possible. Some fruit is absolutely loaded with sugar, so a little commonsense should be applied.

All very well saying eat a balanced diet, but food and nutrition has not been taught in schools for many years. There are generations now who just don’t know what a ‘balanced diet’ is or how to plan and cook healthy meals from scratch. You only have to watch some of the programmes on TV about peoples eating habits (several on C4 for instance), as well as just look around you to see that clearly there are not enough people eating a balanced diet. I was lucky, I grew up in a family where there was a strong interest in quality, well prepared food which included lots of fresh ingredients. I was also taught food & nutrition at school, practical & theory. Part of that theory helps me interpret the food labels now provided (which of course, aren’t consistent making it harder for everyone!). I look at the children I pass every day at a local primary school, many of whom appear to start their day with crisps, sweet drinks etc, apparently provided/accepted by their parents/care givers, and despair.
Whilst, I agree that food labeling needs work and the food industry as a whole is clearly just there to make profits, it is also vital that education (& I don’t mean just that the government provides) covers basic nutrition & healthy lifestyle information, both theory and practical; doctors or others should not be afraid to tell someone that they or their children are overweight and risking their health – the same way they would if they were a smoker or drank too much.

sks – I take your point but I think a good initial approach to a balanced diet is common sense. Include a fair proportion of fresh vegetables, meat and fruit. Not difficult to roast a chicken, cook a joint or make a casserole. Then go for quality prepared food, not “value” – good sausages or burgers will cost a bit more than those that are rubbish but not over-much, and a lot better for you. Buy a cook book and a slow cooker.

vitamins says:
21 February 2013

Why not provide information on vitamins and minerals also?

The more information that is provided, the more likely it is to be ignored. Most people who eat a reasonable diet have an adequate vitamin intake. Vegetarians and particularly vegans do need to be more careful about nutrition but they tend to be better informed about what is in their food.

It is best to ensure that we eat foods containing vitamin C every day, but other vitamins are stored by the body and it does not matter too much if our diet is better on some days than others.

Another problem is that the vitamin content of foods can vary according to source and storage.

Dave R says:
21 February 2013

If I had my way, companies would not be allowed to use the five a day logo on any processed ready meals. I would alllow manufacturers to use the logo only on frozen vegetables and canned vegetables and fruit provided they also indicated what constitutes one portion.
Supermarkets should be required to exhibit a poster in their fresh fruit and veg section indicating the governments recommendations on portion size for each variety.
Be careful when substituting salt with lo-salts. They contain potassium and excess of this in the blood can lead to problems in people suffering from heart conditions.

Good point about the excess potassium (hyperkalemia), Dave. Anyone with heart problems should be getting dietary advice. But don’t forget that heart problems can be caused by high blood pressure, and one of the reasons for is eating too much salt.

I am suspicious of all labelling, not only what is put on the label (is it really what it says it is) but also of what they omit. Food has always been a good basis for corrupt practices to take place. There was milk pollution in China, and olive oil pollution in Spain, only revealed after people became sick and died, to name but two. Is that organic rice really organic? Is that ‘No GMOs’ true? TV reportage over the years has done wonders about telling us what processed meat can consist of, which includes the scrapings of meat off the bone and the skin of the animal, water to plump out the stuff and paste-meat-mash gunge. These facts are not on the label. How are we to know? If we did know would we still eat it? We should eat less, but eat well, ie the very best we can afford, and buy the makings of our meal and cook it ourselves. Give time to it. Make time for it. It is important. A lot of us don’t think it is, but primarily food is our medicine.

Hubert says:
25 February 2013

It seems to me that a product with a 5-a-day logo should never have more than one fifth of the daily recommended dose of salt, sugar and fat. If all 5-a-days stick to that, then if you eat 5 of them on a day, you won’t get too much salt, sugar or fat.

I consider the 5 a day theme is unhelpful if you don’t have basic knowledge of nutrition. As a previous commenter noted, it would be a good idea to make this a part of the school curriculum. I have also noticed that spreads no longer list the trans fatty acid content any more. This is the worst of the fatty acids to consume with no nutritional value at all. This sort of information is more useful than a ‘5 a day’ claim, which can be misleading in health terms, but only if people know about nutrition.

The reason that trans fats are no longer listed is that they are no longer present in the ingredients used by the large food manufacturers. It is not often we can say anything positive about manufacturers of processed foods, but credit where it is deserved.

Thanks for your reply, wavechange. That’s good news indeed and I feel a lot better for knowing that.