Spare the Salt

We know too much salt is bad for our health. But what is too much? And how can we reduce our salt intake?  

The Health Risks 

Too much salt increases the risk of  cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, kidney stones, age related kidney failure, and possibly even stomach cancer and cognitive decline.  

In 2013 the BMJ reported that reducing salt and increasing potassium would have major global health benefits. 

How much should we be eating? 

The NHS advises we should be eating no more than 6 grams of salt a day from all sources. That’s around one teaspoon of salt a day. However, on average we’re eating 8g a day. That’s less than we used to but still too much. 

At the same time, one large study reported in The Lancet in 2016, suggests that eating too little salt may increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. 

So, reducing to 6 grams a day seems a reasonable target but not reducing further until there’s more good quality research available. 

Where does the salt come from? 

Much of the blame for our high salt diet can be laid at the food industry’s door. It routinely overuses salt for flavour, preservation and to enable water to be added. This means up to 80% of our salt consumption in the UK comes from processed food.   

One piece of good news is that the food industry in the UK has been gradually reducing salt levels in its products in recent years and this has helped reduce salt consumption by around 15%. However,  progress in reducing salt has been much slower in restaurants, takeaways and fast food outlets

How can we reduce our salt intake? 

The best action we can take is simple. Cut down on processed food. Foods to avoid or eat rarely include: 

•   Most ‘fast’ foods, such as pizza

•   Most snack foods, such as potato crisps

•   Processed meats, such as sausages, salami, hot dogs and luncheon meats

•   Canned vegetables

•   Dehydrated or packet foods, such as instant pasta or soups

•   Bottled sauces, such as tomato sauce and soy sauce

   Cheese (except ricotta, cottage, mozzarella and Swiss cheeses)

•   Most packet breakfast cereals  

Alternatives for breakfast include fruit, natural yogurt, untreated grains and cereals, unsalted bread, nuts, oats and eggs. 

Other ideas to reduce salt intake include greater use of herbs and spices for flavouring, not adding salt to food, rinsing tinned beans to remove excess salt, and buying low or reduced sodium versions of food. 

How do we know how much salt is in the food we’re buying? 

Labels can be helpful. Remember that 1g salt contains 0.4g sodium. So broadly, for every 100g/ml of a food product: 

  • 1.25g salt (0.5g sodium) would be a lot of salt – red if the pack has traffic light symbols
  • 0.25g salt (0.1g sodium) would be little salt – green if the pack has traffic light symbols. 

Some manufacturers quote Recommended Daily Amounts (RDA) of sodium. Up to 5% is low sodium, over 20% is high. 

Anything else we should know? 

Unprocessed foods are richer in potassium, another element essential to most bodily processes. It is found in high amounts in most fruit and vegetables and in unprocessed meat and some fish.   

In 2008 The Journal of Nutrition reported that we need to reduce sodium levels and increase potassium levels. However the elderly and people with kidney disease or other medical conditions should consult their doctor about this. 

Conclusions  

•   We need to reduce the salt we currently consume to around 6 grams a day (i.e. around a teaspoon). 

•   So we should eat less processed food, as this is usually the main source of salt in our diet. 

•   Eating more natural unprocessed food (like fruit, vegetables and unprocessed meat and fish) will produce a better balance of sodium and potassium and reduce the risk of high blood pressure, CVD and stroke. 

•   Consuming less salt will also reduce the risk of developing other conditions such as calcium depletion and possibly stomach cancer.   

Rachel Laughton-Scott September 2013, Reviewed and updated by Devika K K Jethwa December 2016. Next review date September 2019

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Low salt dinner recipes

BBC

Lower salt diet tips

NHS

Salt – The Basics