A new report shows half of Britons eat dangerous amounts of salt, risking heart problems, strokes, kidney disease and cancer.
Our nutrition expert Angela Dowden takes a look at some of the myths, and truths about salt.
Fact: We eat far more salt than we need
At least 26 million people in the UK are eating more than the recommended adult daily salt intake of six grammes. Men eat an average of 11g of salt a day, equivalent to almost two level teaspoons, while women consume around 8.1g.
Children also have more salt than recommended.
Babies below the age of six months should have less than 1g of salt per day and seven to 12-month-olds should have no more than 1g per day. For ages one to three, the recommendation is 2g; for four to six-year-olds it is 3g; and for seven to ten-year-olds it is 5g. Children over 11 have adult requirements.
Myth: Sodium and salt are the same
Chemically, salt is sodium chloride – and every 1g of salt contains just 0.4g sodium. This means that if a food label gives only sodium information, you need to multiply it by two-and-a-half to get the salt content.
While we cannot live without sodium – it regulates the body’s fluid balance and is crucial for nerve and muscle function – too much is harmful. The chloride part of salt isn’t deemed harmful, though.
Fact: Salt isn’t the only source of sodium
Sodium is also found in additives including sodium nitrite, sodium bicarbonate and monosodium glutamate. So read the label of processed foods and medicines.
Myth: Salt is the primary cause of high blood pressure
Too much salt can cause cause blood pressure rises in people who are already prone to hypertension (high blood pressure).
But whether healthy people who don’t have blood pressure problems need to reduce their salt intake is a matter of controversy.
In launching its latest campaign, however, The Food Standards Agency has decided that population-wide reductions in salt are to be recommended, citing the Intersalt trial – the world’s largest salt investigation – as evidence.
This study involved more than 10,000 people from 32 countries and showed a general correlation between sodium consumption and blood pressure – a pattern which was strongest in the middle-aged, but also persisted weakly across the whole age and blood pressure range.
Experts involved in the study estimate that a blanket reduction by one third in sodium intake could reduce strokes in the UK by 22 per cent, and heart attacks by 16 per cent.
Fact: salt can make you heavier
According to Professor Graham MacGregor, of St George’s Hospital in London, salt consumption results in us carrying around 3lb of excess fluid (salt attracts water like a sponge, and this can be especially troublesome for women before their period). High salt intakes are also associated with a greater excretion of calcium in the urine – which some researchers think may compromise bone strength and increase the risk of developing osteoporosis.
A correlation has also been found between salt and asthma, and salty foods and stomach cancer.
Fact: Some people may not need to reduce their salt consumption
This is possibly the case – a review in the Journal Of The American Medical Association concluded that salt reduction has little benefit for many healthy individuals with normal blood pressure.
Other, arguably more important factors in keeping blood pressure healthy are reducing weight and alcohol intake.
In the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hyper-tension) trial in the U.S., those who ate more potassium, calcium and magnesium through a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy products showed significant reductions in blood pressure even if they didn’t restrict salt.
However, the effects were better still when salt was minimised as well. One estimate is that ten to 25 per cent of those with normal blood pressure are sensitive to the effects of salt, but what’s incontrovertible is that most of us eat far more salt than we need, so reducing intake is probably wise for all of us.
This is especially so if there is a history of high blood pressure in your family.
Myth: You should not cut down on salt if you sweat a lot
It’s often been suggested that manual workers and athletes need extra salt, or that it’s dangerous to cut down on salt when the weather is hot. But you need very little salt to be healthy – and many people in tropical countries eat far less salt than we do.
The Salt Manufacturers’ Association argues that at-risk groups for low salt include the elderly and pregnant women.
But if you’re in one of these groups you’d have to be eating a very low salt diet indeed (and in the hottest weather) to run into problems. In practice, it’s extremely unlikely to happen.
Myth: Most salt is added at the table
About 80 per cent of the salt we eat comes from processed foods. Supermarkets and manu-facturers have pledged to reduce salt, but they aren’t doing it quickly enough for either the Government or Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH), which represents the views of the leading medical experts on salt in the UK.
The food industry has been asked by both the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health to come up with plans to make a 40 to 50 per cent reduction.
Fact: There’s a commercial interest in keeping our food salty
According to Professor MacGregor, salt is by far the cheapest flavour enhancer and can make cheaper foods more palatable. “Salt also helps food to retain water and bulks up products extremely cheaply,” he says. “Salt intake is the main driver to thirst and, therefore, soft drink consumption. It is, therefore, of huge commercial interest to many companies.”
Myth: Eating just 6g a day is impossible
No – there’s a lot you can do while manufacturers plan to make salt reductions. Start by checking the label on processed foods to see how much sodium they contain. More than 0.5g sodium (1.25g salt) is “a lot”; less than 0.1g sodium (0.25g salt) is a little. Also try following these tips, from Sam Church, a nutritionist at the Food Standards Agency:
- Be sparing with sauces, especially soy sauce, because they are usually very high in salt.
- Cut down on salty snacks such as crisps – go for low-salt snacks such as dried fruit, sticks of vegetables and unsalted nuts instead.
- Try to eat less of heavily salted foods such as bacon, cheese, pickles, smoked fish and many ready-prepared meals.
- Choose canned vegetables and pulses that are marked “no added salt”.
- Make your own stock or choose lower salt stock cubes, because stock cubes tend to be high in salt.
- Add less salt to cooking – use herbs and spices to add flavour to cooking, instead of salt.
- Get out of the habit of adding salt at the table – try to remember to taste food first.