Too much salt in branded pasta sauces

November 14, 2009 § 2 Comments

I have yet to find and read a definitive academic study on salt in the diet and its effects on health but as I understand it salt/sodium in the diet has a proven effect on hypertension/high blood pressure which in turn significantly increases the risk of stroke and heart disease.  I also have a suspicion that, without knowing what our recommended intake of salt is, most of us eat far more than our daily recommended allowance of salt.

I refuse to stop seasoning the food I cook at home with salt.  What really annoys me is the hidden salt content in processed foods, salt we don’t even know we’re eating.  One answer is to reduce the processed foods we eat.  That’s all very well for soups, ready meals and sauces but much more difficult in the case of bread.  Bread is a staple food and whilst it’s undeniably satisfying to bake your own bread most of us buy the majority of our bread probably from a supermarket.  Having on occasion peered at the labels on bread, it seems  that all the branded bread on sale is high in salt with remarkably little variation in salt content between the different brands. A little salt in bread is needed to make it taste good but it’s nothing short of scandalous that we are forced to eat salt in such quantity in a staple food.

Salt levels in processed food, especially in bread has been an issue I’ve been concerned about for some time now so the news story which broke yesterday about salt levels in branded pasta sauces caught my interest immediately.

Predictably enough it was Jamie Oliver, and to a lesser extent Loyd Grossman branded products which hit the headlines as containing most salt.  In Jamie’s case, the hypocrisy was pointed out as he has famously spearheaded a number of healthy eating initiatives, notably campaigning for better quality school meals.

The story behind the headlines is that on organisation called CASH (Consensus Action on Salt and Health) published the results of its survey into the salt content of 190 (yes 190) different branded pasta sauces.  A quick glance at the CASH website shows that it seems to be a pukka (to borrow Jamie’s term) organisation backed by leading scientists.  The sauces were then ranked by salt content per 100g and salt per serving size was then computed and compared to our recommended daily intake of 6 g salt per day.

You can find the CASH website at

Top of the list was actually Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Pesto alla Genovese with 3.2g salt per 100g.  This retails in a 190g jar but it was Jamie  who hit the headlines as being the worst salt culprit with his Spicy Olive Garlic & Tomato Sauce containing 3g salt per 100g.  The sauce is sold in a 350g jar and if you assume a portion size to be half a jar as the CASH researchers did, then each serving contains a whopping 5.25g salt using up nearly all your recommended daily salt allowance in one go.

This didn’t sound too good for Jamie.  I support much of what he has done in raising issues about school food and conditions in which battery chickens are reared.  I am also aware that certain areas of the media love to take a pop at him.  I decided to call in at my local supermarket to pick up a bottle of the now infamous Spicy Olive Tomato & Garlic sauce to see if it might have any redeeming features.  It might be for example a super-concentrated sauce where just a couple of spoonfuls might be required – for example nobody in their right mind would think of lobbing whole jar of pesto into the pan for pasta for 2 people.

Three attempts to find the sauce failed – the shelves of my local Co-op, Waitrose and even Jamie’s own Sainsbury’s were bare not only of this sauce but of all his branded products.  I concluded that they couldn’t be much of a health risk if you couldn’t actually buy the stuff.

I was now in Sainsbury’s with an empty basket.  Faced with shelf after shelf of lookalike bottled sauces I decided that I’d buy and taste test three of them.  I picked up a 350g jar of Loyd Grossman Tomato and Chilli Sauce containing 1.5g salt per 100g, a 200g jar of Seeds of Change organic Roasted Red Pepper sauce also with 1.5g salt per 100g, and finally a 350g jar of Gordon Ramsay Seriously Good Olive and Tomato sauce with 1.0g salt per 100g.

Scanning the row after row of identikit sauces I was amazed, maybe even horrified at how many of these rather sad products were on offer. It was notable too that many were promoted by minor celebrities a little past their use-by date.  As well as Loyd Grossman and Gordon Ramsay products there were of course Paul Newman’s sauces and even a range by Lawrence Dallaglio… yes the former England rugby captain.  Are these products aimed at sad single guys cooking for themselves I mused?

Three of us (me plus sons George and Arthur) taste-tested the three selected sauces in the Raffle kitchen on Saturday lunchtime.  We were unanimous in deciding that the Loyd Grossman sauce was the worst of the bunch.  Watery, greasy, big lumps of carelessly chopped tomato and unpleasantly salty.  The advertised chilli was unpleasantly harsh.

The boys quite liked the Seeds of Change red pepper sauce because of its sweetness which in turn masks its saltiness.  They compared it to sweet and sour sauce. I found the smell on opening the jar rather repulsive – like a particularly nasty babyfood- and the texture rather slimy because of the inclusion of some kind of gum or starch within the ingredients. Also the red pepper was unskinned which is just lazy on the part of the manufacturers.

Best of the bunch was Gordon’s sauce.  It had a pleasant thick texture and depth of flavour from the herbs used.  There were visible chunks of olive and caper in the sauce.  It was still quite salty and I think a little would go a long way.  This sauce may have been best of the bunch but frankly that’s not saying much when the field is this weak.

My conclusion was that I wouldn’t choose to buy any of these products again and I rather wastefully chucked out the sauce we hadn’t eaten.  Not only did they not taste great but all three were unnecessarily salty and the excess salt didn’t compensate for the underlying lack of flavour.  If I wanted a tomato pasta sauce in a hurry, I would use a few spoonfuls of passata warmed through with a tablespoon of good olive oil.

For all you single guys cooking for yourself out there – don’t buy this stuff.  Instead, whip up a quick Spaghetti ‘ajo e ojo’ (with garlic and oil).  Just dress your spaghetti  with olive oil in which a couple of chopped cloves of garlic have been sautéd until golden brown, season with a couple of twists of black pepper and as much or as little salt as is right for your personal taste and you’re done.  This pasta dish is by all accounts the late-night snack of choice of Rome’s chic insomniacs.  Much more stylish than a sad jar of Gordon Ramsay or, god forbid, Lawrence Dallaglio…

§ 2 Responses to Too much salt in branded pasta sauces

  • AngloAmerican says:

    I totally agree, the supposed wide variety we are offered at the supermarkets are baffling and awful in almost equal measure. I am on holiday in America. While I am here, I will look into the prepared sauces for you to compare. I have a sneaking suspicion that the American variety might be a more offending article… We shall see!

    I will post back to you in due course.

    • Jennifer Raffle says:

      Great to hear from you! Thanks for continuing with the experiment would love to try out some products from the US.

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