Sodium Intake per Serving of Nearly Half Meal-on-one-plate Dishes Exceeds Daily Limit

15 March 2017
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Meal-on-one-plate dishes are popular dining choices for Hong Kong people.  They come in large portions, with a great variety of choices, at affordable prices.  The Consumer Council, in collaboration with the Centre for Food Safety, conducted tests on 10 popular types of meal-on-one-plate dishes, with a total of 100 samples of non-prepackaged dishes.  Sodium contents per serving of 45 samples were found to reach or exceed the upper limit of daily intake (2,000 mg) recommended by the World Health Organisation.  When considering the sodium content per portion, the sample of the highest sodium content exceeded WHO's recommended daily upper limit by 1.4 times. If calculated on the basis of 3 meals a day, all samples exceeded one-third of the recommended upper limit for sodium intake (667mg).    When compared to similar studies conducted in the past 10 years, there has been no significant change in the overall sodium content of these dishes.

This study included 10 of the most common types of meal-on-one-plate dishes available in the local Chinese and Western restaurants, Asian-style restaurants, local style cafes and fast food shops, encompassing 100 samples.  Meanwhile, information provided on the nutrition labels of 8 samples of pre-packaged food items was also inspected.

Average sodium content of fried noodles with preserved vegetable and spare rib was the highest among the 10 meal-on-one-plate dish types with average at 470mg/100g, 1 sample had 600mg – the highest per 100g sodium content found in this study.  The difference of sodium contents of that sample (600mg) and the sample with the lowest sodium content (350mg) was over 40%.  The difference showed that although preserved vegetables are salty pickled food, the dish could still be produced with lower sodium content by reformulating recipe and reducing the amount of added salt and other seasonings.

Sodium content of steamed rice with bean curd sheet and roasted pork was found to be the lowest among the 10 meal-on-one-plate dish types, with average at 230mg/100g.  The sample with the lowest sodium content at 110mg/100g could be regarded as "low sodium" according to definition in the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations.

Even though some samples have relatively low sodium content when calculated per 100g, consumers are cautioned that serving portions are different for every dish, affecting overall sodium content.

The study has shown that sauces are an important factor influencing sodium content in food.  Using steamed rice with barbecued pork as an example, a dish without sauce can reduce sodium content by 26% to 56% per serving, which indicates that if consumers foster the habit of cutting down on sauces or avoiding them, sodium intakes can be reduced effectively.

Braised E-Fu noodles ranked the second highest in sodium content level among the 10 meal-on-one-plate dish types, having 410mg/100g.  Sorting the dishes according to their sodium content per 100 g, spaghetti Bolognese was relatively higher, followed by fried rice noodles with sliced beef, baked pork chop with rice, and fried rice in Fujian-style, with average sodium content of 350mg to 310mg for every 100g.

The study also examined nutrition labels of 8 prepackaged food items of 3 types of dishes, namely steamed rice with curry beef brisket, baked pork chop with rice, and spaghetti Bolognese.  Except for 1 sample of steamed rice with curry beef brisket, the total sodium content of the remaining 7 samples exceeded one-third of WHO's recommended daily intake limit.  The prepackaged samples of baked pork chop with rice had average sodium content at 343mg/100g, close to the sodium content level of non-prepackaged samples (340mg/100g); as for spaghetti Bolognese, average sodium content of prepackaged samples (443mg/100g) was higher than the non-prepackaged samples (350mg/100g) by 20%.

An appropriate amount of sodium is necessary to enable the body to function normally, but consuming too much salt can increase risk of high blood pressure, and even chronic diseases like heart disease, stroke and kidney failure.
Consumers should be aware of their eating habits and take heed of the following advice to cut down on sodium intake:

  • Reduce consumption of meal-on-one-plate dishes with food high in sodium content such as preserved vegetables, salted fish and Chinese preserved sausages; 
  • Request restaurants to reduce or refrain from adding sauce to the food, or serve separately; and ask for "less salt" or "less salty" option of the food;
  • Be aware of the serving portions of a dish, consider sharing it with others;
  • Read the nutrition label when choosing a prepackaged food item.

The following recommendations are for the catering industry:

  • Reduce use of ingredients that are high in sodium content, rinse or soak preserved vegetables for reducing salt.  Make adjustment to the amount of salt or other seasonings containing salt or sodium;
  • Use a separate container for sauce and savoury ingredients with gravy to allow customers to add as they like;
  • Apart from the standard serving portion, provide options of smaller portion for customers; 
  • Indicate nutrition information of the food items on the menu or price list for customers' reference.

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