Queen Mary University have completed a survey, looking at the salt content of pestos, and have written an article summarising their findings. Have a read through the below and let us know your thoughts…

We Brits have developed a love of pesto. Not only is it a popular choice to add to pasta for a quick and easy meal, it’s also added to sandwiches, soups, pizzas, meat and fish. Although traditionally made with basil, a variety of flavours now line the supermarket shelves, and whilst it may offer us a little taste of Italy, research shows it may not be a healthy addition to your lunch or evening meal. A new survey carried out by Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) has revealed that pesto can be particularly high in salt, with some containing more salt per serve than a McDonald’s hamburger!

Out of the 75 branded and supermarket own pestos surveyed, the salt content ranged from 0.7g to 3.3g per 100g, with over a fifth being classed as high in salt (containing more than 1.5g salt per 100g). And the variation wasn’t just spotted between brands either. Within the same brand, there was as much as a three-fold difference in the salt content between different flavoured pestos, for example, Sacla’s Classic Basil Pesto contains 3.3g salt per 100g whilst their Broad Bean, Pea and Mint contains 1.0g salt per 100g, and Tesco Classic Green Pesto has 2.0g per 100g compared to their Reduced Fat Red Pesto which has 0.7g per 100g. When looking at the salt values per serving, the worst offenders provided over 1.5g of salt – a quarter of the maximum daily recommended intake for adults and even more for children. Yet the lowest varieties had 70-80% less salt in the same size portion.

    Salt per 100g Salt per serving
Highest Sacla Italia Classic Basil/Organic Vegetarian Basil Pesto 3.30g per 100g 1.57g per 47.5g serve
Lowest Tesco Reduced Fat Red Pesto 0.70g per 100g 0.33g per 47.5g serve

Although pesto is now less salty compared to when it was last surveyed by CASH in 2009, there is still significant work to be done. Some companies have made great progress – Jamie Oliver’s Green Pesto and Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Pesto Alla Genovese, for example, now contain around 70% less salt – but others, such as Sacla, have ignored Government recommendations and increased the salt content. This undermines the positive work carried out by some responsible companies, who are taking action to improve the nutritional quality of the food they sell. As a nation we are eating too much salt, and this increases the risk of high blood pressure which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Reducing intakes is a surefire way to reduce our risk, and as such the Government has set voluntary salt targets for different categories of foods, including pesto, for companies to achieve by the end of 2017. Unfortunately not all are meeting them; in fact almost 40% of the pestos surveyed exceed the average target. The vast difference in salt content between some products shows that a lower salt content can be achieved.  The Conservative Government must act now and do more to ensure that manufacturers reduce the amount of salt added to everyday foods, as this is where most of the salt we eat comes from.

Another issue, applicable to so many foods we eat, is that we don’t always stick to the recommended serving sizes stated on pack. These are often a lot smaller than the amount people are actually eating, resulting in them consuming more than they think. In this case, a jar of pesto that is meant to serve four might be used for only two or three people, making an even bigger contribution towards salt (and other nutrient) intakes. If eaten with other salty foods like cheese, olives and processed meats then the amount consumed will be even higher. What’s more, pestos are also high in fat and some can be high in saturated fats. Almost half (44%) of those surveyed would receive a red label for saturates on front of pack, and therefore should only be eaten in small amounts.

It’s important for consumers to know what’s in the foods they buy, to help them make better informed decisions to improve the quality of their diet as well as that of their families. Similar foods are not always the same when it comes to their nutritional value, as our surveys frequently highlight. That’s why it pays to shop around, check the label before purchasing and choose healthier options where possible. In the case of pesto, opt for reduced fat versions as these typically contain less salt as well as less fat. Avoid ones that are high in salt (those with more than 1.5g per 100g; they appear red for salt on a colour-coded front of pack label) and stick to the portion sizes stated on pack. Swap salty additions like cheese and sundried tomatoes for vegetables and add herbs for extra flavour. You can also try making your own pesto without the need for salt!

To help you find the healthier choices when you shop you can download the free FoodSwitch UK app. It lets you scan the barcode and get colour-coded nutrition information as well as a list of healthier alternatives to your favourite brands. There are five different filters to help you find similar choices with less salt, saturated fat, sugar and fewer calories than the item you’ve scanned. FoodSwitch UK is available to download from Google Play or iTunes. You can find further details about the pesto survey and other work of CASH at http://www.actiononsalt.org.uk/

Source: Consensus Action on Salt & Health, Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Queen Mary University of London

About Queen Mary University