Ready supermarket meals may seem like an easy dinner option but health groups are warning they could be increasing consumers' risk of heart disease and stroke, with some found to contain more than the maximum recommended daily salt intake in a single serve.
A study of nearly 1500 shelf-stored, chilled and frozen ready meals sold at Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and IGA found that the average meal contains half of the World Health Organisation's maximum daily adult salt intake of 5 grams in a single serve.
However, a single serve of some of the saltiest ready meals contains well over 5 grams of salt, according to the study conducted by the George Institute for Global Health and VicHealth, which defines ready meals as "prepared, complete meals that required no extra ingredients and minimal preparation, other than heating".
This includes Jewel Fine Foods' Quick as Wok Chicken Teriyaki, which contains 5.85 grams of salt per 300 gram serving, and Manassen Foods' Wokka Shelf Fresh Noodles with Mi Goreng Sauce, which contain 5.51 grams of salt per 350 gram serving.
The report's lead author and the George Institute's public health nutritionist Clare Farrand said "it is staggering" that a single meal can contain close to or more than the daily recommended salt intake.
"We tend to look to ready meals at dinner time so frequently because they're a high-convenience food and there's more and more coming into the market, and the population's becoming more time poor," Ms Farrand said.
"But many people wouldn't expect to pick up a meal when they're looking for a quick option and get more than their maximum daily salt intake."
Too much dietary salt can increase blood pressure and the risk of stroke and heart disease, and has been linked to more than 1.65 million cardiovascular deaths globally per year, the report states.
Australia is among a number of countries working towards a global target of cutting average salt intake by 30 per cent by 2025, and voluntary salt reduction targets have been set for a range of foods including bread, breakfast cereals, soups, sauces and processed meats.
However, there is currently no sodium target for ready meals in Australia, and the report recommends the establishment of such a target along with better monitoring tools to hold manufacturers accountable.
Ms Farrand said voluntary salt reduction targets in other food categories have seen manufacturers cut down on salt in recent years.
"We can see that [salt targets work] and we know that some [ready meal] manufacturers can produce meals with far less salt," Ms Farrand said.
"If one manufacturer can do it, they can all do it."
Ready meals with the least amount of salt per serve include 7 Chefs' My Pasta Box Classic Tomato and Basic Penne, with 0.26 grams of salt per 280 gram serve and Fresh Fodder's Mild Chicken and Rice Curry.
Pre-prepared meals that are found on non-refrigerated shelves have the highest average sodium content, followed by frozen and chilled meals. Only 42 per cent of meals evaluated in the study met the UK's current average sodium target of 250 milligrams per 100 grams.
The report notes that significant variations in overall sodium content and serving sizes can make it hard to judge how much salt is on your plate, and recommends that consumers choose ready meals with less than 380mg of sodium per 100 grams, and reduce their reliance on processed and packaged foods where possible.
The average Australian currently consumes about 9 grams of salt per day, nearly double the World Health Organisation's recommended maximum intake, with 75 per cent of dietary salt coming from processed foods, according to the report.
Ready meals are growing in both popularity and availability, with the number of products found on supermarket shelves rising from 208 in 2010 to 473 this year.