Ready-salted restaurant meals – a pinch too far?

salt overspill

Good news – we’re eating the least amount of salt of any developed country. Bad news – we’re still eating far too much of it. And it’s no surprise after my experience on a nice meal out last weekend…

Apparently the catering industry is partly to blame for our excessive salt consumption, according to the healthy-eating group CASH (Consensus Action on Salt and Health).

This doesn’t surprise me – the other weekend I took the family out for a pub meal as a treat and I had to send the kids’ meals back as they came seasoned with extra salt.

The rules on salt in restaurants

Although food manufacturers (those who sell pre-packaged food) aren’t legally obliged to tell you the salt content of their products, the vast majority of them do. New EU laws coming into place will soon mean that this is compulsory.

However, unlike food manufacturers, cafes and restaurants don’t have to tell you how much salt is in their food. And the catering industry is also much further behind when it comes to committing to targets for reducing salt levels. So there’s very little incentive for chefs to cut down on salt, and why would they when adding it is a quick and cheap way to make food tasty?

The recommended amount of salt an adult should eat per day is 6g – about a teaspoon. My one-year-old should be eating no more than 2g and my four year old up to 3g, so you can see why I was concerned when their meals arrived sprinkled liberally with extra salt.

A sprinkle of info on menus

Thankfully, I found out before the kids’ salt levels had gone through the roof (I knew my habit of stealing food off their plates would come in handy one day) and the pub replaced the meals without any quibble. But if the kitchen’s happy to sprinkle extra salt on a child’s dinner after the cooking process, it makes me wonder how much went into their food prior to that.

Short of sending their food off to a lab every time I eat out, I have absolutely no way of knowing. Which is why I think food outlets should have to display nutritional information for food eaten outside the home. Not only would we all know how much salt, saturated fat and sugar we are eating, but it would encourage chefs to cut down on unhealthy nutrients.

In a previous conversation, CASH alerted us to how pizza contains higher salt levels than sea water. Conversation commenter Kim said:

‘Now restaurants have to put the calories on their menus, wouldn’t it be a good time to identify which are the low salt and high salt options?’

And I agree. Would you like to know how much salt is in your food or would you prefer to order what you fancy without being given the salty details?

Sophie Gilbert says:
27 June 2012

In some way I would prefer to order what I fancy without being given the salty (or cal-horrific details) because I don’t think that I go to the restaurant often enough for it to affect my health, and I want to take time off from time to time, be free of the nutritional obsession that seems to possess most of us at times.

I must admit, however, that knowing the salt content of the sauce on an otherwise delicious steak I had recently could perhaps have given me a clue about just how salty it was going to be, and I would have order something else. The sauce was so salty it ruined the dish, really. (Before you ask, I was a wimp and I didn’t complain…)

My bugbear is salted salads – why would anyone pre-salt a salad for you??!! ‘Ready-salted lettuce? No thanks! There is always the option for salt-lovers of adding salt (and I mean ALWAYS – cafes, takeaways & posh restaurants alike) but you really can’t take it out!

I hate salted vegetables – generally it ruins their flavour. If this is what we feed children I’m not surprised they so often don’t like vegetables. Without salt many vegetables are sweet. Steamed they have even more flavour.

I like unsalted butter too.

I’m not saying I don’t like salt. I do. I will add it to the new potatoes on my plate with the butter.

Please don’t put it in because as someone else has already said YOU CAN’T TAKE IT OUT.

I agree with both Kat and lessismore above – it just doesn’t make any sense to sprinkle salt on top of something – a diner can always sprinkle it themselves when it comes to the table, but try picking salt off the top of a plate of chips!

I’m often quite surprised to see other people adding salt to water before they cook vegetables in it, or adding lots of salt to a soup or a sauce. Admittedly I’m not the best cook in the world, but I very rarely add salt to anything I cook, and it tastes fine to me.

I think Nikki makes a good point – just like many flavours, diners become accustomed to salt and that’s when they start to miss it. I have *never* cooked with salt unless it’s specifically stated in a recipe and find I’m quite sensitive to salty dishes. Yet I know many people who add salt to all their food without even trying it first.

I remember buying a Marks & Spencer’s primavera pasta sauce some years ago. I then added more peas and more peas and more peas until the whole pack was in there and it didn’t taste salty any more. I wonder how salty I’d find it now, several years on.

I also find that some pies eg chicken and vegetable are really only edible because of all the unsalted vegetables that we eat with them. I suspect it is the gravy that is oversalted.

Murphybear says:
28 June 2012

We have a local carvery which has the most wonderful local Devon beef. It was completely ruined by the gravy, I think they had cooked it using salt water. Even more amazing are the number of customers who liberally sprinkle their meals with salt without even tasting the food first.

On a positive note, we were in the restaurant of the Lakeland flagship store in Windemere last week and they offered a bowl of crispy French fries without any salt. Simples

Smiths crisps were good with the little blue bags – at first just twists – of salt.

I guess some marketing person then realised that if you salt everything people are likely to drink more.

Snowdin says:
29 June 2012

I miss the little blue Smiths bags too. I don’t use sugar in drinks or salt on food and you simply adapt to the taste over time, so that when it is added gratuitously eg. in hotels in packets of drinking chocolate or occasionally packets of dried coffee with milk, the drink tastes horrendous. Back to restaurants, the celebrity chefs appearing in the media have a huge amount to answer for. They seem to throw handfuls of unmeasured salt over food at times. A good reason to save my money from their expensive restaurant prices. Another hobbyhorse concerns the miserly portions of vegetables at often ludicrous additional cost, though if they’ve been cooked in concentrated saline not eating them might be a good thing. How could anyone get a decent amount of 5 a day eating in posh restaurants? (That includes you, Heston.)

TedLin says:
30 June 2012

Cannot agree enough with Snowdin about celebrity chefs, even my favourite Delia was guilty. I and my husband love to cook and entertain many friends and (as most commentators here say) we do not add salt until the final tasting stage. I have ‘weaned’ some friends from adding salt before tasting my food but it is an acquired taste and we ‘acquire’ it at as babies with processed food for children unnecessarily high in salt. Also, as a diabetic. I read food labels now and am constantly amazed at the balance of fat, sugar and salt. So if a food is labelled low in one thing you can be sure it will be very high in one of the others and the manufacturers apparently claim this is necessary for the flavour. The only solution is to use fresh food as much as possible which is fine if you love to cook and are able to make the time to learn easy recipes but for many people that is not always an option. TV Chefs have an education opportunity but first they have to learn themselves to leave salt (and cream) in the cupboard.

Saltfree says:
1 July 2012

We rarely eat out in resterants because of the salt levels in plated meals. When we do choose to eat out it is mostly at our local carvery where adding gravy is an option and all the meat is carved off the bone and all the veg is freshly cooked and unadulterated and you can have as much as you want. Ideal for introducing kids to vegetables and relatively cheap. We also prefer self service salad bars for the same reason. On a recent trip to China, which turned into a gastronomic nightmare, all the food had iodised salt added to eat and I was very ill for almost a year after coming home. If only people would realise that their bloodpressure levels would drop and they could throw away their medication if they just cut out the salt.

I have worked as a food taster on a panel for a well-known ingredients company who would concoct the ingredients for sausage flavouring, crisps, mayonnaise etc.

My initial reaction to the thread is one of slight annoyance as it seems we are seeking to add a further layer of complexity to restaurants to suit a minority of people. Perhaps the case against salt is overstated as outlined in this article:

I always avoided taking my children to chain restaurants in case they got addicted to the pap offered and also because of poor value for money. If you learn to cook properly you can provide your children with good food. And cooking good food need be neither expensive or time consuming. It does require thought.

That some people salt their food before trying it is of course an abomination.

The UK’s track record on scaremongering and then retracting is illustrated by the guidance on exposure to sunshine which, with the increase in rickets in the UK, has been substantially changed from what was drummed into us by the Health bodies when they adopted the Australian guidance on exposure.

It seems that nobody fully appreciated that Australia if positioned in the Northern Hemisphere would be where Spain is and the sun in Spain is more potent that the watered down British version.

Anyway reverting to salt. If you sweat a lot you need more salt. And some people sweat more than others regardless. The idea that an average figure is suitable for all is obviously false from the outset and a range of figures should be allowed. This about endurance racing but you can see what happens with too little salt: