A chicken burger and chips for children at a KFC fast food outlet in South Africa is among the saltiest in the world.

The latest international survey on leading fast food outlets suggests that the country’s children could at times be consuming three times more salt content on local fast foods than what is required.

Salt is regarded as the single most contributing factor to hypertension, which can also lead to strokes and kidney failure.

The survey, by World Action on Salt and Health (Wash), which analysed salt content in children’s meals in 37 countries, has ranked SA among the top 10 nations for saltiest children’s fast food meals.

Of the 387 popular meal combinations surveyed, 82% contained more than one gram of salt – recommended by the World Health Organisation.

The organisation recommends a maximum of five grams a day for adults.

Popular franchises KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway were among those surveyed.

Conducted in partnership with the Heart and Stroke Foundation of SA, the survey found South Africa’s KFC’s chicken burger and chips to be the saltiest globally, with a salt content of 2.91 grams. This is more than half a teaspoon per meal, and about three times more than the one gram of salt recommended in each meal.

The country’s McDonald’s chicken nugget meal also had high amounts of salt, and was ranked third saltiest chicken nugget meal at 1.67 grams, after Turkey and Venezuela.

The UK had the lowest salt content in this meal, at 0.78 grams.

The study has raised the ire of the Health Department, with the head of non-communicable diseases, Melvyn Freeman, calling for the country’s fast food outlets to reduce their salt content in food.

He said while the recently introduced regulations to reduce salt content in several foodstuffs in the country would kick in next year and would hopefully reduce the amount of salt in fast foods, “it is important that fast food outlets take a lead in reducing discretionary salt, which is added during food preparation”.

“South Africa is one of the countries with high rates of hypertension, and it is concerning to hear that some of these outlets have such high salt content in their food. We really ask food manufacturers to collaborate with us in making our population a healthy nation by reducing salt,” he said.

The survey also showed that salt content varied significantly from country to country.

Some First World countries, mainly the UK and US, consistently had low salt content in their children’s meals, mostly less than one gram.

KFC’s popcorn and nugget fries were found to be the saltiest food at 5.34 grams in Costa Rica, while Burger King’s combo meal of hamburger and chips in Finland was also salty at 2.54 grams. McDonald’s chicken nuggets and fries in Turkey also contained a substantial amount of salt at 2.40 grams, while Subway’s saltiest meal, turkey sub, had 1.50 grams in Germany.

Christelle Crickmore from the Heart and Stroke Foundation, who collected data from KFC and McDonald’s in SA, also raised concerns about the amount of salt in the country’s fast foods.

“With South Africans having one of the highest rates of high blood pressure worldwide – and with one in 10 children already suffering from the disease – we simply cannot afford to allow such high levels of salt in popular children’s meals,” she said.

But some of the fast food franchises have distanced themselves from the claims that they served too much salt, saying they met the country’s food quality standards.

Gail Sham, spokeswoman for KFC, said: “We have reduced the sodium content in our meals. Salt reduction is part of KFC’s global nutrition strategy and markets have made varying progress on this journey.”