‘Healthy' snacks saltier than the sea
Vegan. All Natural. Made of lentils... Just when you thought crisps had got healthy, we reveal the...
AS WE contemplate a summer of picnics, catching up with much-missed friends and family, thank goodness there are now so many wholesome, healthy new alternatives to crisps to munch on.
Or are there? Worrying new research has found that many of these trendy snacks made from lentils, chickpeas or green vegetables are anything but good for you, despite the health halo created by their virtuous packaging and 'vegan' or 'all natural' labels.
A disturbing report by the campaign group Action On Salt (AOS) reveals many contain far more salt than standard crisps – and some are even saltier than Atlantic seawater. To put it into context, Walkers Ready Salted crisps contain 1.4g of salt per 100g, Atlantic seawater contains 2.5g per 100g – and some of these "healthy' snacks contain more than 3g per 100g.
"The packaging often boasts that they are vegan or gluten free or all natural, but consumers are being deceived into thinking these are healthy products," says Graham MacGregor, chairman of AOS and professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Wolfson Institute, Queen Mary University of London.
"Actually, they should come with a warning label about their high salt content. The manufacturers are appealing to people who want to choose something healthier than standard crisps, yet when they buy these products they are slowly poisoning themselves with salt."
Too much salt is bad for us because it raises blood pressure, which can lead to strokes and heart attacks in later life.
"High blood pressure is a big killer – the second biggest in the UK after smoking – and salt is the major factor," says Prof MacGregor.
While our bodies need some salt, most of us eat 2.4g more than the 6g recommended daily maximum, and experts worry that the figure may have increased since the start of the pandemic because we're snacking more.
A survey in January found that 35 per cent of people reported snacking on unhealthy food at least once a day – up 9 per cent on the previous year. And sales of savoury snacks rose by 19 per cent after the announcement of the first lockdown in March last year.
The Action On Salt report examined 118 'healthier' snacks made from whole pulses such as chickpeas, or processed pulses and legumes like lentils, hummus, corn, peas and beans. A whopping 93 per cent of them made health claims on their packaging like "lower in fat", "gluten free", "all natural" and "no artificial preservatives".
All the claims are perfectly legal, but the authors believe they mislead consumers and discourage them from scrutinising the label.
And the fact they are made from pulses or pulse-based flours doesn't mean they are necessarily healthier than standard crisps, says nutritionist Sonia Pombo from AOS.
"We should all be eating more beans and pulses," she says, "but there are better ways to do it. Yes, some of these are lower in saturated fat and have a higher fibre content than potato crisps. But their high salt content will definitely negate that."
One in three of the snacks analysed specified the use of 'sea salt', which consumers often think is healthier than refined salt. "We've analysed the sodium content of different salts and they are all practically the same," says Sonia. "Unfortunately, all salt is salt. It's just a clever marketing tactic."
Campaigners point out some manufacturers have cut salt by using new technology. For instance, Inka Snacks Salted Roasted Giant Corn has 1g of salt per 100g, 1.5 times less than a similar Love, Corn product. And Off The Eaten Path's salted Popped Rice and Pea Chips have 1.1g of salt per 100g, 2.3 times less than Corners Pop Veggie Crisps (2.5g).
"We are not telling people they shouldn't snack because we all snack – I do myself," says Sonia. "But we're trying to demonstrate that it is possible to make these foods less salty, and by looking closely at the labels we can choose healthier options."
We examined the salt content and flavour of some popular snacks.
CHILLI LENTIL CHIPS
Eat Real Lentil Chips, Chilli and Lemon (65p for 22g, Tesco)
Salt: 2.8g per 100g
A silver badge on the packet proclaims '40 per cent less fat, no added sugar, gluten free, vegan'. But the fact they contain twice as much salt as Walkers ready salted crisps (1.4g) doesn't make it onto the packaging. "While it might be true that a product has less fat than crisps, it still isn't a low-fat product and has higher salt than most crisps anyway," says Sonia.
I found these so salty as to be virtually inedible. Their Hummus Chips Chilli Cheese flavour packs contain 3g of salt per 100g, while the wholesome sounding Quinoa Puffs Jalapeno and Cheddar contained 2.4g.
CRUNCHY CORN SNACKS
Love, Corn, Habanero Chilli (£1 for 45g, Waitrose)
Salt: 2.8g per 100g
One 45g bag of these crunchy corn snacks provides more than a fifth of your maximum daily salt intake and more salt than 3.5 bags of Walkers Ready Salted crisps, so it's probably just as well that the packaging doesn't make any health claims. Admittedly, I did love the flavour, but thought the salt overpowered even the chilli.
TASTY HIGH PROTEIN LENTIL CHIPS
Proper Chips, Barbecue Lentil Chips (85p, 20g, Sainsburys)
Salt: 2.55g per 100g
The cheerful purple packaging complete with cactus and cowboy boasts '94 kcal per serve' (a little maths shows that they mean a serving is 20g), but no mention is made of the high salt content.
On the back of the packet it says 'natural seasoning, vegan and gluten free' and states 'lentils are high in protein and a source of fibre and iron'. Taste wise, these came second: I loved the puffy crunch and barbecue seasoning.
POSH VEGETABLE CRISPS
Corners Pop Veggie Crisps, Sea Salt (£1.80, 85g. Ocado.com)
Salt: 2.5g per 100g
There are alluring pictures of pea pods, chickpeas and beetroots on these triangular veggie crisps that promise they are 'The New Shape of Veggies!' Interesting that the flavour was 'Sea Salt' not plain old salt (even though, sodium wise, they're exactly the same).
I loved the crunch and texture – you can see little pieces of veg embedded in the crisps – and thought they tasted like a very salty rice cake. If you want to opt for lower salt, the sour cream and onion flavour has far less (1.3g).
PUFFY LENTIL CRISPS
Simply 7 Lentil Crisps, jalapeno (£2.09 for 85g, Asda)
Salt: 3.4g per 100g
The front of the packet features a hessian bag with an 'all natural lentils' label plus gluten free and vegan logos. However, these puffy lentil snacks contain an eye-watering 3.4g of salt per 100g – and one serving of 28g contains more salt than two bags of McDonald's French fries. After wolfing down a packet, I wondered whether this was even necessary as the spicy jalapeno was the dominant flavour. The AOS report notes that these crisps have a whopping 2.4 times more salt than a similar product, Burts Lentil Waves in Thai Sweet Chilli flavour (1.4g).
PEA AND BEAN TREATS
Off the Eaten Path Pea and Bean Sticks, Sour Cream and Black Pepper (£2.25, 100g, Sainsburys)
Salt: 2.4g per 100g
These felt like a really high-end product, with cardboard packaging and pretty pictures of peas in pods and beans alongside a bowl of sour cream. 'Made with real vegetables' says the stamp on the front (they are 14 per cent white bean flour, 14 per cent pinto bean flour and 14 per cent green pea flour). "At some point this was a pea or bean, that's true," says Sonia. "But if you look at the ingredients list, you'll see the pea element is really quite low."
However, these were the only snack I tested that had the approved nutritional 'traffic light' symbols on the front of the packet. (The one for salt was red.)
Although they are high in salt at 2.4g, they have less salt in them than Atlantic seawater and are the lowest of the ones I tried.
They are also a hit with my husband and two teens, who declared them both "tasty" and "crunchy" and the only ones worth the high salt content.
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