The Which? research looked at five categories of ready made foods, sold in ten of the UK's largest supermarkets: cheese and tomato pizza, chicken tikka masala, steak and kidney pie, quiche lorraine and beef lasagne and compared the fat and salt content of different brands and products.
The difference between some of the highest and lowest levels of salt and fat per 100g in the ready made foods shows that manufacturers could do far more to reduce current levels of salt and fat used in their recipes. For example, the Little Big Food Company Real Italian Stonebaked Microwave Margherita Pizza contains nine times more sodium than The Little Big Food Company Organic Stonebaked Pizza Margherita, and Somerfield Indian Chicken Tikka Masala and Marks and Spencer Chicken Tikka Masala contain five times more sodium than Morrisons Chicken Tikka Masala.
Several of the ready made meals contained worrying levels of salt and or fat per portion. Some of the highest levels we found per serving include Tesco Indian Chicken Tikka Masala (without rice), contains 47.3g of fat in just one portion (over two thirds of the guideline daily intake for women and half for men). Iceland Lasagne contains 3g of sodium per portion - more than the entire guideline daily amount for men and women.
The research also reinforced the need for a simple labelling system to enable comparisons between products and to easily identify which products are high in fat, sugar or salt. In addition, the findings highlight the need to take into account how much of the product is actually eaten rather than just basing it on 100g of the product.
The Consumers' Association is calling on food manufacturers to look at its recipes to see how salt and fat in processed foods can be reduced. In addition, the organisation wants the government to develop a traffic light-style labelling system to help consumers identify how much salt, sugar and fat a product contains and ensure that industry uses it.
"The food industry talks the language of healthy eating but Which? research shows that in practice the industry has done little to cut fat and salt in food, said Nick Stace, director of campaigns and communications, Consumers' Association. "Depending on which ready made food you choose you will find huge differences in the levels of fat and salt with some meals containing as much as three times as much fat, or more than nine times the amount of salt as other products.
"Reducing levels of salt and fat shouldn't mean that we have to eat tasteless, bland food. Some of the premium ranges were lower in fat and salt then the standard versions proving that manufacturers can produce tasty ready made food with less salt and fat. We are therefore calling on manufacturers to help address the diet and health crisis by working to reduce unnecessary levels of fat and salt in their products."
Earlier this year, the UK food industry promised to continue reducing levels of salt in manufactured food products. A joint report from manufacturers, farmers and the hospitality sector stated that salt in sliced bread would be further reduced and targeted reductions in processed meats will be released in the spring.
In addition, an industry policy aimed at sodium reductions in biscuits, cakes and savoury snacks was also agreed along with promises of new research on the technical aspects of salt reduction. The farming, hospitality, manufacturing and retail sectors have now written to public health minister Melanie Johnson outlining the food chain's commitment to working with the government on salt reductions.
The announcement suggested that food manufacturers in the UK were finally taking the high salt content in many food products seriously. The UK's leading bakers for example promised to reduce salt content by a further 5 per cent by the end of 2004 as concluded in an arrangement with the Food Standards Agency (FSA). But the Which? report must cast some doubt on the progress that has been made with regard to the salt content of ready meals.