Salt has been around for centuries. It preserves food and adds flavour to foods. In fact, salt is the world’s most popular flavour enhancer. But despite its popularity, most of us are eating too much of it, to the detriment of our health.
Why we need salt?
Our body actually needs salt to function properly. Salt is made up of sodium and chloride ions which the body cannot make itself, hence our need to get it from our food.
Sodium regulates the volume of fluid in the body and aids the uptake of various nutrients into the cells. Sodium plays a role in transmitting nerve signals throughout the body and aids muscle contraction. It also influences the pH levels in the blood.
Chloride is important for the body as well. Like sodium, it influences the pH levels in the body and fluid movement. It is also important for digestion.
How much salt are we really eating?
Most Australians consume around nine grams of salt per day, according to the Australian Division of World Action on Salt and Health (AWASH). While nine grams doesn’t sound like a lot, our bodies actually only need one gram per day.
Health experts recommend we reduce our salt intake to a maximum of six grams per day. However, Australians with high blood pressure, or existing cardiovascular disease should reduce it to no more than four grams per day.
Dangers of too much salt
You may be wondering why salt is such a big deal. It is widely recognized that diets high in salt can lead to:
- High blood pressure (also known as hypertension) which in turn can increase your risk of experiencing stroke and heart attack, two of the biggest causes of death in Australia today.
- Kidney disease
- Stomach cancer.
Salt has also been attributed to aggravating asthma and contributing to osteoarthritis.
Why are we eating so much salt?
Even if you don’t add salt to your foods, chances are you are still consuming too much. Salt is found in many processed and prepared foods that we eat. It is commonly found in takeaway foods, fries, burgers, frozen meals, sauces, marinades, processed meats, potato chips, nuts, tinned veggies, spreads, cheese and biscuits.
And let’s not forget Vegemite, the holy grail of Aussie diets, which contains a whopping 7.5g of salt per 100g. That equates to one gram of salt for every piece of toast topped with the spread.
The importance of food labels
While you don’t have to eliminate all the foods listed above to reduce your salt intake, you should focus on choosing low-salt foods when at the grocery store. That’s where food labels come in. It’s the sodium in the salt that is bad for our health, so that’s what you need to focus on.
- Less than 120mg sodium per 100g is low
- 120 to 600mg sodium per 100g is medium
- More than 600mg sodium per 100g is high.
Note: Australia only has a definition for low salt foods, so the medium and high levels here are based on the UK recommendations.
Is one type of salt better than another?
Gourmet rock and sea salts have been popularised by TV chefs and ‘wellness warriors’. Many manufacturers claim their product is ‘natural’, contains ‘essential minerals’, and is a ‘tastier and healthier alternative’ to table salt. However, according to the World Action on Salt and Health (WASH), salt is still salt. It doesn’t matter whether it comes from the sea or from the Himalayas, whether they are crystals or grains, or what the price tag is. The bottom line is they all contain an equally high sodium chloride content as table and cooking salt.
Tips to reduce the amount of salt in your diet
Reducing the amount of salt in your diet doesn’t have to be difficult. By following some of these tips, you will make great progress in cutting back on salt.
- Don’t add salt to your food during cooking or at the table.
- Use lemon juice, garlic, vinegar, or herbs and spices as an alternative to salt when cooking.
- Avoid stock cubes, soy sauce, mustard, pickles and mayonnaise where possible. At the very least choose low salt varieties.
- Focus on eating fresh vegetables for lunch and evening meals.
- Make healthy snacks convenient instead of reaching for processed food.
- Reduce your consumption of high fat, high sugar or high salt snack foods.
- Keep takeaways and fast foods such as burgers, fried chicken and pizza to an occasional treat.
- Include healthier options such as boiled eggs and salad, raw vegetable sticks and fresh fruit pieces in lunch boxes.
- Limit your consumption of processed meats.
- Avoid consuming salty spreads on a daily basis.
- Check food labels for salt to compare products, brands and varieties and choose the lower salt options.
- Choose low sodium foods (less than 120mg per 100g) where possible and avoid high sodium (more than 500mg per 100g) foods.
- Limit salty snacks.
So next time you reach for the salt, ask yourself if you really need it.
World Action on Salt and Health
Australian Division of World Action on Salt and Health