/ Food & Drink

The salt that lurks in sweet biscuits

Biscuits

It’s no secret we’re all eating too much salt, but you might be surprised by just how much is hidden in unlikely foods. Sweet biscuits are in the firing line in this guest post from Consensus Action on Salt and Health.

We’ve just surveyed the amount of salt in sweet biscuits here at Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH). We found that having sweet biscuits with your afternoon cup of tea, or popping a couple in your child’s packed lunch, could add more salt to your diet than you think.

Nearly a quarter of the sweet biscuits we analysed (479 biscuits) were shown to be as salty, or saltier than, Butterkist Salted Popcorn (0.9g per 100g)!

Asda’s fun size mini milk chocolate digestives came out worst, with 0.4g of salt per 25g bag. McVitie’s mini gingerbread men also didn’t fair too well, with 0.3g of salt for every 25g pack.

Hidden salt in our food

But is this really such a worry? When discussing biscuits, naturally the first thought that comes to mind is the unacceptably high levels of sugar in them, and we don’t dispute that. In fact, over 90% of the biscuits we surveyed are high in sugar. This puts us and our children at increased risk of developing a number of health issues, namely dental caries, obesity and diabetes.

However, the hidden salt is causing just as much damage, by increasing our risk of developing high blood pressure later in life.

Figures from the UK’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2011) show that more than half of us regularly reach for the biscuit tin, and children are eating more, with 80% of under-10s consuming them on a regular basis.

Our dietary habits in childhood certainly influence our eating patterns in later life, so if we are to tackle the issue, it’s important we ensure our children do not develop a preference for salt in the first place. This can only be achieved if we provide them with a low-salt diet.

Improve salt labelling

‘So,’ I hear you say, ‘We’ll remove the salt cellar from our homes, mission accomplished!’. Unfortunately most of the salt we eat (75%) is hidden in the foods we buy. And I’m not just talking about foods that taste salty; it’s in the most surprising places such as bread, breakfast cereals, soups, sandwiches, and biscuits.

A simple way to overcome this would be to have clear and simple nutrition labelling, making it easy for us to find out what we’re eating and compare products. However, over-complicated food labels, with some products giving figures for sodium instead of salt, makes it almost impossible for us to understand. This is why clear food labelling, which is something Which? has also been calling for, is so important.

The food industry has a responsibility to tell us what they’re putting in our food so that we know what we’re eating. With the new hybrid traffic light labelling being rolled out this summer, this will hopefully help consumers do just that.

CASH tips for cutting down on salt

Like adults, children consume more salt than the maximum recommendation. Therefore, simple changes can be made to our diet to make sure we don’t consume too much salt. Here are a few tips from us here at CASH:

  • Biscuits should be a treat and not an everyday occurrence. If you like to snack, opt for healthier alternatives eg fruit, nuts and plain popcorn. But if you can’t resist them, choose smaller, more traditional biscuits eg custard creams and chocolate bourbons, and ensure you eat fewer of them
  • Compare nutrition labels and choose lower salt options
  • Try making your own biscuits instead, that way you know exactly what’s in them. Avoid using baking powder or self-raising flour, and use unsalted butter instead, or even better a mono or polyunsaturated fat eg corn oil or rapeseed oil.

Are you surprised by the results of CASH’s sweet biscuit survey? Do you make a concerted effort to cut down on your salt intake?

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is by Sonia Pombo, nutritionist at Consensus Action on Salt and Health. All opinions expressed here are Sonia’s own, not necessarily those of Which?

Comments
Profile photo of wavechange
Member

Most people are aware that biscuits are best eaten in moderation because they typically contain considerable fat and sugar and can make you overweight or worse. If we start worrying about salt or other issues, the public is likely to just ignore all the warnings and carry on regardless.

The priority should be to get biscuit manufacturers to change the recipe of those biscuits that present a problem.

Profile photo of Sonia Pombo
Member

Yes you are right! The food industry have been working hard to reformulate their products and reduce salt levels, but more works needs to be done. The Department of Health are currently reviewing the 2012 salt targets for the different food categories, so we are moving in the right direction, which is promising.

What is also just as important is increasing consumer awareness and education, and helping people make more informed decisions in their food choices.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

From the introduction:

“However, over-complicated food labels, with some products giving figures for sodium instead of salt, makes it almost impossible for us to understand.”

What matters in the context of health is sodium, NOT salt. I hope that Which? is not standing in the way of progress. There are other dietary sources of sodium, unfortunately, monosodium glutamate being an example. We should get rid of the term ‘salt’ from the nutritional information for foods.

Profile photo of Sonia Pombo
Member

Yes, the nutrient that is of relevance to health is sodium, and isn’t solely obtained from salt. As shown in our biscuit survey for example, sodium can also be consumed in the form of sodium bicarbonate.
However, the European Commission decided that ‘salt’ is better understood by the public and would therefore be communicated instead of ‘sodium’. Mandatory nutrition labelling, which will come into force in December 2014 will therefore include salt, and not sodium. For this reason, we have communicated levels as salt (sodium x 2.5), so as to provide consistent information to consumers.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

Thanks Sonia. Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is a relevant example of a significant source of dietary sodium in the context of biscuits.

Though it would be better if the EC had decided to use sodium in nutritional information, calculating salt as sodium x 2.5 would be better than just listing salt. As a scientist I feel rather uncomfortable about this sort of fudge, even if it is for a good reason.

Member
Jenny says:
8 June 2013

If the government were to add VAT to unhealthy foods that would highlight the problem to industry, discourage consumers and those who continue to indulge in them would pay into the tax coffers ready for when the need to be treated on the NHS.

Profile photo of Guy Chapman
Member

I am sure we have some salt somewhere in the kitchen but I don’t know where, it doesn’t get used very often. My wife bakes our biscuits using gluten-free flour (I have coeliac disease). They were my favourites before diagnosis and now I can’t eat more than a tiny proportion of commercially available biscuits there is simply no contest!

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

My salt (actually a blend of potassium chloride and sodium chloride) has a ‘best before date’ of September 2011 and I reckon it will last until the end of next year. The pack contained 350 g and I would happily have bought less than half that amount if readily available.