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World Action on Salt. Sugar & Health

New country study reveals wide variation in salt content across processed fish and meat products


Click here to view the study, published in the BMJ Open 

 A new study1 of locally-available processed meats and fish products in five countries showed big variations in salt content, highlighting the potential for all countries to reformulate these products to reduce excessive salt, meet World Health Organization’s Global Sodium Benchmarks (hyperlink) and improve people’s health.

Of the five countries studied, China had the highest amount of salt in both processed meat and fish products (1050 mg/100 g).  The United States was second (655 mg/100 g), followed by South Africa (571 mg/100 g), Australia (489 mg/100 g) and the UK (432 mg/100 g).

A wide range exists between countries and within the product categories. For example, roasted chicken in China had 4.5 times more salt than the roasted chicken in the UK, 4.5 times more salt in chilled fish than the US and paté and meat spreads had 4 times more than Australia. Yet China led all five countries for less salt in bacon, frozen meat, salami and cured meats, dried meat and frozen fish.

Products meeting the UK’s 2017 salt reduction targets2 varied too:

  • UK - 26.6%
  • Australia - 23.2%
  • South Africa - 22.4%
  • USA - 18.4%
  • China - 7.1%

Researchers also used the criteria of the UK’s ‘traffic-light’ front of pack labels, which categorise products as follows3:

  • Red front of pack label indicating high levels of salt if salt levels are >1.5g/100g or 1.8g per portion
  • Amber label indicating moderate levels of salt if salt levels are >0.3g/100g to ≤1.5g/100g
  • Green label indicating low levels of salt if salt levels are ≤0.3g/100g

Many processed meat and fish products were in the red and amber traffic light categories. The UK had the highest proportion of green light products at 12.7% of all meat and fish products, followed by the US (11.7%) and Australia (6.0%), while in China and South Africa it was no more than 5%.

Mhairi Brown, Programme Manager for WASSH, said:  “While this study shows that the UK has made good progress, there is still much more to be done across all countries before we can achieve a global salt intake of less than 5g per day, as recommended by the World Health Organization. Countries must prioritise salt reduction in key contributors of salt to the diet to protect health, communities and healthcare systems.”

Co-author Puhong Zhang, Associate Director at The George Institute, China, and Associate Professor at the Faculty of Medicine, UNSW Sydney said: “Eating too much salt contributes to high blood pressure and greater risk of stroke, heart disease and premature death. Nearly everyone eats too much salt. The large range of salt in processed meats and fish products clearly shows that there is scope to reduce salt within those categories. Since identical products have more or less salt, food manufacturers should consider joining the ‘race to the bottom’ and aim to produce products with less salt.”

Co-author Professor Yuxia Ma, Vice Dean, School of Public Health, Hebei Medical University said: “Setting sodium targets for processed foods is an effective way to reduce sodium content of packaged foods.  This study has three key positive takeaways for consumers, manufacturers and policy makers: consumer demand for less salty foods can be supported within existing food products; manufacturers can now better see the possibilities of developing less salty but still attractive selections; and, policymakers can recognize that salt targets can be set for the market to respond”.



  1. The study involved products from major supermarket chains in each of the five countries, with salt content determined from the product nutrition information on the packaging.  Processed fish included canned; chilled; frozen and, ‘other’.  Processed meats included meat alternatives; bacon; canned meat; frozen meat; meat burgers; salami and cured meats; sausages and hot dogs; sliced meat; dried meat; paté and meat spreads; kebabs; ‘other’ meat products; raw flavoured meats; whole hams and similar products; roast chicken; and raw unflavoured meats.Information displayed on the product packages, including product, nutrition and ingredient information, were entered into a uniform web-based data management system.
  2. Public Health England. Salt reduction targets for 2017
  3. Department of Health. Guide to creating a front of pack (FoP) nutrition label for pre-packed products sold through retail outlets



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