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New UK Health Campaign Targets Chinese Restaurant Food

Action on Salt singled out Chinese takeaways this week for serving dishes with high levels of salt—but we shouldn't demonise the cuisine.
Photo via Flickr user Ani-Bee

Earlier this week, campaign group Action on Salt published a new study on salt levels in Chinese takeaway dishes and ready meals. Of the 141 ready dishes analysed, 43 percent were found to have more than 1.8 grams of salt per serving, pushing them into red traffic light territory. Some dishes contained five times more salt than a Big Mac.

The study included an array of popular Chinese main courses, side dishes, and dipping sauces. Egg fried rice and beef with black bean sauce were the worst offenders, containing 5.3 grams and 6.8 grams of salt per serving respectively. Noodle-based dishes from supermarkets also scored highly.


The daily recommended salt intake for an adult is 6 grams, which is equivalent to a teaspoon. A salt-heavy diet can contribute to health problems such as high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease and strokes and accounts for 2.5 million deaths every year, according the World Health Organisation. Following its Chinese convenience food research, Action on Salt is calling on Public Health England to set salt reduction targets for food providers.

The importance of a low-salt diet is evident, but what I don’t understand is Action on Salt’s decision to target Chinese takeaways with their new campaign. Most of us know that fast food contains higher levels of sugar, salt, and saturated fat than dishes cooked from scratch—that’s what makes it taste good. What’s more, Chinese takeaways are far from the only establishments to use high amounts of salt in their dishes. So where are the judgemental warnings for pizza and chicken shop owners?

To me, it looks as if Action on Salt are unfairly singling out the food of Chinese people as unhealthy, which is something I’ve experienced before firsthand. As a kid with family in the Chinese food industry, people would often assume that I should be the size of a house, due to my supposed diet of chicken balls, chow mein, and black bean beef. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. Popular Chinese takeaway dishes—including those analysed in the Action on Salt survey—represent only a fraction of China’s hugely diverse cuisine, bypassing low-salt (and high flavour) dishes like steamed whole fish, restorative soups, and braised offal. As food writer Fuchsia Dunlop puts it, “if Westerners want to eat the unhealthiest Chinese dishes, why should the Chinese be blamed?”

Of course, we shouldn’t set up an opposition between “authentic” and “takeaway” Chinese dishes—we should be able to enjoy both styles of cooking and note that takeaways provide employment to thousands of people across the UK. What campaigns like Action on Salt’s do, however, is encourage the harmful stereotype that all Chinese food is unhealthy and dirty, just as the fear-mongering headlines about "Chinese restaurant syndrome” did in the 1960s and 70s.

Chef David Chang explores the harm these assumptions cause to perceptions of Chinese food in the West in the “Fried Rice” episode of his new Netflix show, Ugly Delicious. He finds that American Chinese food is still associated with the myth of MSG—the Chinese seasoning linked by hack science to headaches and nausea, then found to be largely harmless.

Let’s hope that people can take the latest scare stories about Chinese food with a pinch of salt.