The truth about Pret a Manger sandwiches

Updated on 24 May 2011 | 0 Comments

Do you try and find healthy lunches on the high street? It's harder than you think...

There are so many sandwich shops and cafes on the high street that the average office worker or shopper has plenty of choice when it comes to choosing lunch.

And if you’re happy to swing past Starbucks and give McDonald’s a miss, it is easy to find a healthy option – right?

Actually, although we’re bombarded with messages about eating well and constant ads about dieting, it is much harder than you think to plug a high street hunger pang without putting away far more salt, sugar and fat than the government recommended amounts.

Take Pret a Manger for example. Its over 200 branches are a lunchtime staple for many thousands of Brits. It’s certainly one of my favourite sandwich shops.

Why? Because, as it says on its website, it provides “handmade natural food avoiding the obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives common to so much of the ‘prepared’ and ‘fast’ food on the market today.”

Sounds super-healthy. But is it?

Made on site

Yes, Pret sandwiches are ‘handmade’ on each premises using ‘natural’ ingredients. In my opinion, you can see this in the look and the taste of the food. Even the cakes and popcorn are “100% natural”, and I’d far rather buy from here than a supermarket.

Dig a little deeper, though, and it becomes clear that the words “handmade” and “natural” do not necessarily mean healthy.

“Natural” but high in calories and fat

Some of the sandwiches on offer are alarmingly high in calories and saturated fat.

Sandwiches have been criticised for containing enough salt to rival a bag of crisps. But the industry, led by the British Sandwich Association, says it is working hard to reduce the amount of salt in packaged sandwiches.

Sodium is not equal to salt

If you look through Pret’s nutritional information, most of the sandwiches contain between 0.5g and 1.5g of sodium. The amount of sodium in a product does not tell the whole story. Sodium is the “good” mineral we take from salt, but the volume of salt in any given item will be about 2.5 times the sodium.

Therefore, while most of Pret’s sandwiches come in at between 0.5g and 1.5g of sodium, the salt content is much higher.

  • For example, the Ham, Cheese & Mustard Toastie contains 3.9g of salt. It might not sound so much, but it is 75% of the 6g of salt recommended we eat each day, and children need much less. Most of us eat between 10g and 12g of salt per day, and the experts say we should be trying to scale back to just 3g.
  • The Swedish Meatball Wrap has 3.4g of salt. Even the soups, which you might think the best option, can be packed with salt. The Classic Tomato Soup has around 2.75g of salt per portion.

Salt makes the sandwiches tasty

Why is it necessary to include so much salt in these ‘natural’ foods? Pret defends its approach, claiming that it is “compliant” with current Food Standards Agency Guidelines. The company says it is “aware” of the public concern about salt and that it is looking into how it can reduce salt levels “without sacrificing taste”.

It also points out that Pret is one of the few High Street retailers that gives its customers calorie and fat information so they can make an informed choice.

Fair enough. But are they actually making any real efforts to reduce the salt content? It seems that a lot of the problem is down to the hidden added extras which aren’t actually prepared on site, such as the mayonnaise, which is slapped on to sandwiches that you would never imagine contained it, such as the Hoisin Duck Wrap. The soups are also made outside the shops.

Pret declined to comment on why its website misleadingly gives the sodium content in each product, while hiding the salt content. Other shops, such as Starbucks and Eat, reveal both the sodium and salt content in their food.

That said, I’m no salt fascist. So many cooks seems afraid of salt, when in fact we do need that 6g. If you usually eat freshly prepared meals at home with little added salt, having your salt in one lunchtime sandwich isn’t going to hurt. In fact you need it.

What is annoying is when retailers such as Pret, who are offering a generally decent product, try to obfuscate when it comes down to the fine details. There are so many confusing messages out there about food, why further complicate matters?

I’m happy to have my salt and eat it – but I’d like to know about it first please folks.

What do you think?

Also worth your attention:

McDonald’s vs Starbucks

Tom Aikens’ Fantasies

Marco Pierre White’s fiery kitchen


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