If, like many Australians, you think big brand products are healthier than their supermarket own brand equivalents, you could be in for a pleasant surprise – at least as far as salt is concerned.
Recent research by the George Institute for Global Health analysed the sodium content of 15,680 products across 15 food categories from 2011 to 2013, comparing branded products with supermarket own brand or "private label" products.
Overall, salt content was lower in the private label products, and in 2013 (the most recent figures) it was 17% lower. The notable exception was breakfast cereal, where private label products were higher in salt than branded products.
Breaking it down by category, salt in private label products was:
- Lower by 27% in desserts
- Lower by 24% in biscuits
- Lower by 22% in processed meats
- Lower by 7% in breads
- Higher by 37% in breakfast cereals
There were no significant differences within in other categories, including cakes, muffins and pastries; cereal bars; cheese, chips and snacks; nuts and seeds; processed fish; ready meals; sauces; soup; and vegetables.
While three of the major supermarket chains – Coles, Woolworths and Aldi – made voluntary commitments to reduce sodium in some of their foods, Aldi was singled out for its "very encouraging reduction in mean sodium content across its private-label range". Conversely, IGA (Metcash) products had consistently higher sodium than other chains.
Aussies exceeding daily targets for salt
The authors note that Australians are eating an average of 9g of salt per day, more than double the suggested dietary target of 4g per day, most of it coming from packaged processed foods. Sodium is implicated in 11% of deaths from ischemic heart disease and 15% of deaths from stroke. Lower income earners are disproportionately affected by cardiovascular disease.
Lead Author Helen Trevena, from the George Institute, says "This is good news, especially for families shopping on tight budgets who are more likely to buy private label products, but are also most likely to suffer from health problems caused by high blood pressure."
Choose food based on overall merits
Professor Bruce Neal, Head of the Food Policy Division at the George Institute for Global Health, points out that the research didn't looks at other nutrients, including sugar and fat, warning that consumers should still judge food products on overall merits.
"Salt is important, but it's one of many nutrients that people should consider and compare when making healthy food choices.
"However, this research is potentially a great help to people with high blood pressure who need to try to choose low salt options."
- Want to know more about brands vs supermarket private label groceries? Read our supermarket investigation.
- Our report on Health Star Ratings explains how to choose healthier packaged foods based on their health star label.