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…

Doncaster school bans birthday cake

October 19, 2009 § 2 Comments

Did I really hear this news story correctly?  What I think I just heard on Radio 4’s  Today Programme was that the head of a Doncaster primary school had sent back a birthday cake that pupil Olivia Morris had brought in to share with her classmates because it didn’t comply with healthy eating rules.

I later checked out the story which seems to have been broken by South Yorkshire’s own “The Star” and the headmistress is indeed quoted as saying that the birthday cake contradicted healthy eating rules and might cause allergic reactions.  Oh dear.  And to make matters worse it was a home-made cake baked by Olivia’s  greatgrandmother.  It defies belief and it’s rude to the point of churlishness into the bargain.  And Yorkshire folk grumble about having a reputation for being miserable gits….

Michael Pollan’s book In Defence of Food

October 4, 2009 § Leave a comment

I had half an hour to kill between meetings earlier this week and that was how I came to be browsing the food and cookery section in University bookshop Blackwells on Oxford Road.  I was thinking of adding a glossy coffee table book on the food of Venice to my already too-large collection of cookery books but decided to choose instead Michael Pollan’s slim paperback  “In Defence of Food” .

I am so pleased I did.   I’d heard of  the book before when listening to Radio 4’s Food Programme but wasn’t sure what to expect.  What I got was a compelling and well written read on the subject of what we should eat now to be healthy and escape the problematic elements of the Western Diet.

Pollan condenses the answer to the question he poses at the very beginning of the book:  Eat Food.  Mostly plant based.  Not too much.  Sounds simple doesn’t it?  And the point Pollan makes is that it is simple and that we should learn to go back to what we already know about food, trust our instincts and not be swayed by the over-simple one-track nutrition messages.

The low fat message is an example Pollan singles out for attention in the chapter he calls “The Melting of the Lipid Hypothesis”.  He concludes that the 30 year public health effort focusing on a single dietary goal – the reduction of fat in our diet – may well have made our health worse.  This is because the hypothesis on which the dietary advice was given – that dietary fat is responsible for chronic disease – is at best simplistic and at worst just plain wrong.  I’ve always instinctively shied away from the advice that we should eat fewer eggs – after all what could be wrong with choosing a boiled egg (supposedly bad because of its cholesterol levels) for breakfast rather than a bowl of high sugar high salt cereal (but of course able to make the magic low fat claim). And I have never willingly eaten margarine because I think butter tastes better, naturally distrusting the health claims made by margarine manufacturers.

So it is gratifying to read Pollan dissecting the lipid hypothesis, delicately pointing up the scandalous irony that it is the trans fats in margarine, the so-called “healthy alternative” touted to us all these years that is the real villain.  Pollan summarises this idea as follows” the principal contribution of thirty years of official nutritional advice has been to replace a possibly mildly unhealthy fat in our diets with a demonstrably lethal one”.  Hear hear!

So what does he mean by Eat Food?  Pollan distinguishes between real food and food -like substitutes and gives tips on how to distinguish between them.  As a guide, he suggests that we should avoid eating food products with more than five ingredients on the label.  To illustrate his point he lists in full every ingredient in a loaf of Sara Lee Soft & Smooth White Bread – all 37 on them! It reads like a rather scary kind of poetry.

What about his advice that diet should be mostly plant based? Pollan runs through the by now familiar evidence that a healthy diet should be plant based but is objective enough to admit that we don’t necessarily know all the reasons why that should be the case.  The good news is that some meat in the diet is OK, especially if we choose meat and dairy product from grass fed animals.  One of Pollan’s points is that everything is linked  – yes, you are what you eat, but what you eat is also what it eats – so an egg from a free-range hen eating a mixed diet is a very different thing from a battery product.

Pollan delivers his advice in a light and funny manner.  Who wouldn’t smile on being told “Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does”?  He recognises the irony of an American lecturing the world on how to eat better.  He’s never high-handed and earnest, yet his book is nevertheless soundly researched and based on good science as far as I can tell.  Blimey, he even manages to get the Daily Mail on his side as a review on the back cover indicates!

This is essentially an optimistic book as Pollan reminds us that the best choices for our health also happen to be the best choices for the planet.  As he says “That these also happen to be the most delicious choices is very good news indeed”.

With that thought in mind, I’m going to enjoy a boiled egg and real bread soldiers for breakfast now!

How grasslands can save the planet: Graham Harvey article

September 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

I came across an interesting article in this quarter’s Living Earth magazine.  Living Earth is the magazine of The Soil Association’s of which, I should declare at the outset, I am a fully paid up member.  I am also a fairly regular listener of the Archers, the long running story of farming folk on Radio 4.  So the name Graham Harvey caught my eye as he has been Agricultural Story Editor to the programme for a number of years now, as countless post-broadcast trails have taught me.

The article, titled Fields of Carbon, is a summary of the arguments Harvey puts forward in his recently published book, “The Carbon Fields: how our countryside can save Britain”.

The steps in Harvey’s intriguing argument go like this:

  • The world’s soils are the largest terrestrial reserves of carbon.
  • A fair proportion of damaging greenhouse gases come from soil carbon released by modern industrial farming practices – ie the move to rearing animals on grain rather than pasture.
  • We can, without too much difficulty, reverse this trend by returning animals to grazing which will put excess carbon back into the soil

It’s a seductive argument isn’t it as it means that, providing it is sustainably reared using traditional farming methods, it’s OK to eat meat after all.  So, how is the trick achieved?

Harvey goes on to explain that the world’s food supply is based on annual plants, in fact the top 3 food crops of wheat, rice and maize account for a massive 50% of land under cultivation.  Annual plants require massive amounts of oil energy to produce a crop both in terms of cultivation machinery and in terms of chemical fertilisers.  So it makes no sense to feed expensive (in every sense) grains to animals. Harvey goes on to contend that perennial plants, such as are found in species-rich grasslands could, if carefully managed, produce most of our animal feed with far fewer chemical inputs.

Harvey goes on to add a second strand to his argument, explaining that the soil is, in terms of the organic matter it contains, a massive carbon sink.  We already think of forests as an important means of trapping carbon, but in fact 82% of carbon in the “terrestrial biosphere” (now there’s a phrase to drop in conversation) is not in forests at all but is in the soil.

As you might expect, intensive cultivation tends to deplete organic matter in the soil releasing carbon into the atmosphere, whereas happily, under grass, soils rebuild their stocks of organic matter.  We are not talking small numbers here: Harvey quotes the staggering statistic that, according to a Royal Society estimate, carbon capture by the world’s farmlands given better management could total as much as 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year which is more than the annual accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Harvey concludes his article with the tantalising idea that a different form of agriculture with more emphasis on grassland production wouldn’t merely help with the problem of global warming but could solve it.

It is good to read an optimistic article on solving the world’s problems for once.  Is it too simple to be a realistic solution and do his numbers stack up?  I don’t know but I’d like to find out more.  The good news is that eating organic meat (organic standards require cattle to have at least 60% of their daily feed as forage) is a sustainable choice which tastes good as well.

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