An analysis of more than 150 Chinese dishes found that many of them contain disturbingly high amounts of salt — some being five times more salty than a Big Mac. Study authors call on policymakers to make health labeling mandatory.

Mapo Tofu is one of my favorites. Image credits: Guilhem Vellut.

Sweet sour pork, Kung Pao chicken, Mapo tofu — these staples of Chinese cuisine (and many others) have become increasingly popular in the Western World. With over 22 million takeaways eaten every week in the UK alone, understanding the health impacts of these foods is a significant concern. With this in mind, Action on Salt, a group concerned with salt and its effects on health, supported by 25 expert scientific members, analyzed 150 Chinese foods.

They found that both supermarket and takeaway Chinese food dishes were laden with salt, with the worst offenders having five times more salt than even the Big Mac. Out of the tested foods (all in the UK), 97% contained a hefty 2g of salt or more per dish. Over half (58%) contained more than 3g of salt per dish — half of the recommended daily intake in the UK, 6g of salt (the World Health Organization recommends no more than 5g of salt). The study reads:

“Chinese meals should carry a health warning on packaging and menus after a new survey based at the Wolfson Institute, Barts & The London, Queen Mary University of London has exposed the astonishing and harmful amounts of salt found in both Chinese takeaways and Chinese ready meals sold by some of the UK’s biggest supermarkets. The group of leading experts is now calling on Public Health England (PHE) to get tough on setting new salt targets, making front of pack labelling mandatory and put warning labels on menus for dishes high in salt.”

Image credits: Dubravko Sorić.

Main courses (such as beef in black bean sauce) topped the list, but accompanying dishes such as rice, spring rolls or prawn crackers can also add to the total salt quantity. Soy sauce, a staple of Chinese cuisine, is extremely salty, but sweet sauces and foods can also contain impressive amounts of salt (which is often used as a flavor enhancer).

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the WHP (and really, any health organization), excess sodium (‘table salt’ is a sodium salt) can increase blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and stroke.

“Salt is the forgotten killer as it puts up our blood pressure, leading to tens of thousands of unnecessary strokes, heart failure and heart attacks every year,” said Graham MacGregor, the chairman of Action on Salt and a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London.

The findings are concerning, and Action on Salt says that the first step towards tackling this issue is labeling — having a visual warning could help to make people more aware of how much salt they are consuming.

Results have not been peer-reviewed.