Is your pasta sauce ‘Full of it’? It’s hard to tell.

New research carried out by Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) shows that many pasta sauces on sale in the UK, particularly some branded products and those fronted by celebrity chefs, contain much higher amounts of salt than others [1].

The Food Standards Agency’s salt campaign encourages consumers to read the labels, and see which pasta sauces are ‘Full of it’ [2]. This new research shows that the pasta sauces’ labelling and portion sizes are inconsistent, and in some cases missing completely, so understanding the salt content is confusing and unclear, making this advice very difficult to follow.

CASH surveyed 190 jars, pots and packets of pasta sauces [3]. Both branded and supermarket own-label products from Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda, Morrison’s, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Somerfield and the Co-op were included in the research.Combined, the branded sauces, including Dolmio, Ragu, Jamie Oliver and Loyd Grossman averaged at 1.17g of salt per 100g, while the supermarket own-label products combined averaged at around 0.86g of salt per 100g, 25% less than the branded products.

Comparing similar sauces by portion size proved very difficult as different products had differing suggested portion sizes. Over a third (73 of the 190 products) did not provide salt or sodium data per portion, and over a quarter (52 of the 190 products) gave no portion size information. Napolina products give their customers no information about the salt or sodium content at all. As a result, it was often easier to look at the salt content per 100g when making comparisons, but this does not help the customer to work out how much salt they are eating in a serving of sauce.

The largest range of salt content was seen in the tomato-based pasta sauces. The highest salt product found on the shelves was Jamie Oliver’s Spicy Olive and Garlic sauce with 3.0g of salt per 100g. Per half a 350g jar this works out as 5.3g (as stated on pack), which is nearly all (88%) of an adult’s recommended limit of 6g of salt per day in one serving, and the same salt content as over ten packets of ready-salted crisps. Weight Watchers’ Roasted Garlic pasta sauce contains just 0.1g of salt per 100g, a thirtieth of the Jamie Oliver sauce’s salt level.

The highest salt supermarket own brand sauce found in the survey was Sainsbury’s Puttanesca Pasta Sauce, which contains 2.0g of salt per 100g. The Co-operative Tomato & Olive Pasta Sauce contains 0.7g of salt per 100g, over four times lower than the Jamie Oliver sauce and almost three times lower than the Sainsbury’s sauce.

Huge variations were found in other sauces with similar ingredients, for example Loyd Grossman’s Bolognese sauce contains 1.5g of salt per 100g whilst ASDA’s Good For You Bolognese was found to contain just 0.3g of salt per 100g, a fifth of the salt content of the Lloyd Grossman version.

Stir-through sauces are thicker and more concentrated than standard pasta sauces, so will have smaller serving sizes, but there are still large variations in their salt contents even within brands. The highest salt stir-through in this survey was Sacla’s Spicy Tomato & Pepper stir-through which contains 2.0g of salt per 100g, while the lowest product was Sacla’s Oven Roasted Tomato & Rocket Stir-through, which contains 1.0g/100g, half the amount of the other Sacla product.

Looking at carbonara sauces, Dolmio Express Creamy Carbonara Microwaveable sauce contains 1.5g of salt per 100g, while Morrisons Eat Smart Carbonara Pasta Sauce contains a fifth of this level – 0.3g of salt per 100g.

Pesto sauce is eaten in smaller quantities, but can still contain a lot of salt. Most of the green pesto sauces surveyed would have to carry a red label for their salt content under a ‘traffic light’ labelling system, indicating that they contain more than 1.5g of salt per 100g. The lowest salt green pesto found was Marks & Spencers’ Pesto Alla Genovese at 1.0g per 100g. Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Pesto Alla Genovese was the highest salt green pesto in the survey at 3.2g of salt per 100g. Weight for weight, this is saltier than seawater [4].

Weight Watchers had the two lowest salt products found in the survey: Weight Watchers’ Roasted Garlic pasta sauce (0.1g salt per 100g) and Weight Watchers’ Napoletana, (0.15g salt per 100g). Supermarkets also produce several own-label products under 0.3g of salt per100g, which would be classified as ‘green’ under the traffic light labelling system and should be congratulated.

“Pasta with sauce is a quick and simple meal for many of us,” said Katharine Jenner, Nutritionist and CASH Campaign Manager. “But this survey shows it can be incredibly hard to choose a healthy option. There are still some sauces on the shelves with really high levels of hidden salt. We found a 30-fold variation within the tomato based pasta sauces and 22 of the 190 products we looked at do not meet the 2010 Food Standards Agency targets for salt content [5]. We urge manufacturers to reduce their salt content and improve their labelling immediately.”

“In general, sauces containing ingredients such as olives and bacon tend to be saltiest, whereas sauces with chilli or basil tend to be lower in salt,” says Hannah Brinsden who carried out the research for CASH. “Better still, many of the sauces we looked at can be made easily and more cheaply at home, with a far lower level of salt. We’ve put simple, tasty recipes for pesto, carbonara, and tomato-based sauces on our website. None of them contains more than half a gram of salt per serving [6].”

“Salt puts up our blood pressure, which is the major risk factor for strokes, heart failure and heart disease, the leading causes of death and disability in the UK,” says Graham MacGregor, Chairman of CASH and Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine.

“It is shocking to see so many products still so poorly labelled and high in salt. However, many brands, in particular supermarket own brands, have far less salt, proving that it is not necessary to add loads of salt to make a tasty product. People should either choose clearly labelled lower salt pasta sauces or ideally make their own. Reducing the amount of salt they eat will reduce their risk of suffering a stroke or a heart attack.”

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Download the complete release here.
Download the survey results here.