Real Chinese food is good for you, unlike the heavily salted, processed version adapted for Western tastes, writes Stephen Jardine.
If you were looking forward to relaxing in front of the telly tonight with your favourite Chinese takeaway meal, you might want to think again. Campaigners this week called for a health warning on Chinese food from supermarkets and takeaways after new research showed some popular dishes featured five times more salt than a Big Mac. Of the meals tested, the majority contained half the recommended adult daily salt allowance of 6g. Add in a side dish of egg fried rice and some prawn crackers and your salt intake is through the roof. That is a serious problem because too much salt in your diet can raise your blood pressure, putting you at increased risk of health problems such as heart disease and strokes.
Those blooming Chinese. Coming over here with their highly salted food and giving us heart attacks. It makes for a good tabloid headline but totally misses the truth. Just as a Britain’s favourite curry, the chicken korma, would be unrecognisable in India, the dishes on the salt list of shame would confuse any Chinese cook. Instead they are highly processed attempts to fool us into thinking we’re eating traditional Chinese food. And to cover up the fact that most ready meals feature low-quality ingredients, the manufacturers turn to their old friend to deliver flavour, salt.
In reality, authentic Chinese food is incredibly healthy. With lots of steamed rice and green vegetables and little saturated fat, it is a recipe for staying well. But that is not the version of Chinese food we’ve been sold here.
Our taste buds have been trained to expect sodium in the Western diet so Chinese dishes have been adapted to deliver it; some supermarket rice dishes have as much salt as 12 bags of ready salted crisps.
Chinese cooking has taken the hit in the great salt witch hunt but in reality the processed food industry should take the blame. Amoy, which supplies sauces and noodles, is owned by US food giant Heinz, while Blue Dragon is owned by Lancashire-based AB World Foods. With these companies serving up what we expect from Chinese food, it’s no surprise your local takeaway offers the same. It takes a brave chef like Jimmy Lee in Glasgow to serve stir-fried king scallops with mange tout in chilli garlic when he could just jump on the bandwagon. As Brexit proves, it’s always tempting to blame others for our own problems but Chinese food is really not the bogeyman when it comes to salt in our diet. Instead we need to look much closer to home. With the dangers of too much in our diet well established, the use of salt in the home has fallen but hidden salt when we eat elsewhere is the real enemy. Campaign group Action on Salt has recognised that and called on the Government to set tough new targets for reduction. They also want to see salt levels on front of pack labels and warnings on menus as is now done in New York.
We also need to big food processers to step up to the mark as responsible members of society. Some have reformulated popular dishes to reduce salt content without any consumer backlash. The giant food producers got us to where we are today in terms of salt consumption so now they must take us somewhere better.