Given the hype about the evils of sugar, it’s all too easy to overlook the risks of consuming too much salt.
It’s National Salt Awareness Week (29 Feb – 6 Mar) and while sugar is increasingly demonised, salt has been getting off pretty lightly of late.
Recently, an influential French study questioned the role of sodium chloride (the chemical name for salt) in high blood pressure. Adding to the mixed messages, a paper in the British Medical Journal implicates sugar rather than salt in coronary heart disease, and research conducted by a team at the University of Regensburg in Germany suggests that a high salt diet might boost the immune system.
But don’t be fooled. “Due to the overwhelming clinical studies demonstrating that high dietary salt is detrimental to hypertension and cardiovascular diseases, we feel that at present our data does not justify recommendations on high dietary salt in the general population,” says Jonathan Jantsch of the University of Regensburg.
Any supposed health benefits of a high salt diet should therefore be taken with a pinch of the white stuff. The hard evidence shows that going OTT on sodium chloride can raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. So, are we really overdoing it on the salt and endangering our health?
The statistics say yes. Official figures show that an estimated 80% of men and 58% of women in the UK exceed the daily recommended intake of 6g of salt – that’s about a teaspoon. And if you think, “oh, I’m fine, I never add salt to my food,” you may be surprised to learn that most of the sodium chloride in our diet is actually hidden in processed foods.
How do I know I’m having too much?
High blood pressure is the classic sign. Excessive thirst, dehydration, puffy skin and water retention, dark urine, kidney stones and other kidney problems are possible symptoms of excessive salt in the diet. But you may not notice anything at all.
Keeping tabs on the salt content of what you eat and drink is the best way of making sure you’re not going overboard. Try to make a point of checking labels and opt for low-salt foods when you can (less than 1.5g of salt per 100g) and steer clear or limit highly salted foods (more than 1.5g of salt per 100g), which are labelled red in the traffic light system.
If you don’t have time to read ingredients labels, it’s worth making a mental note of what to avoid. Sodium chloride is a potent preservative, so it figures that processed foods will tend to contain high levels of salt. Checking out this list of notoriously salt-heavy foods, it may be wise to give the deli counter a wider berth next time you’re doing the weekly shop:
• Bacon, ham, chorizo and other preserved meats
• Smoked salmon, anchovies and other cured fish
• Cheeses, especially halloumi, blue, feta, Edam and heavily processed varieties
• Olives and pickles
• Salted and dry-roasted nuts
• Soy, oyster and fish sauces
• Yeast extract
It’s also savvy to be aware of the following processed foods. Their salt content can vary depending on the brand and manufacturing process, so if you can, try to check the labels for these:
• Crisps and corn snacks
• Ready meals and supermarket sauces
• Pizza and pasta
• Canned soup
• Salted caramel
The unlikely suspects
Salt is a powerful flavour enhancer and electrolyte as well as a preservative, and manufacturers add it to food and even drinks that may not taste salty at all. These are the stealthy salt-rich foods and drinks you should be wary of:
• Bread – some loaves may contain 100% or even more of your daily allowance
• Breakfast cereals
• Prepared sandwiches and salads
• Isotonic and hypertonic sports drinks
• Coconut water – a glass of coconut water can contain as much salt as a small bag of crisps
You can help cut down your overall salt intake by switching to a potassium chloride-based substitute such as LoSalt, which contains 60% less sodium than regular table salt, though people with certain medical conditions should avoid it – always read the label.
Try to limit the ready meals and cook from scratch if you’ve got the time so you can control exactly how much salt is going into your food.
There’s a lot you can do to enhance the savoury flavour of your cooking without resorting to the salt shaker. You could experiment with spices such as black pepper, cumin or cardamom, use fresh herbs to jazz things up, add umami-rich ingredients like garlic and mushroom, or drizzle your dishes with infused olive oil or citrus juice.
Restaurant food can be a bit of nightmare if you’re aiming to minimise your salt intake. Chefs can be overly generous with the seasoning and many dishes may exceed recommended sodium chloride levels. When you can, ask the waiting staff about the salt content. Many restaurants offer low salt options these days and will be only be too happy to accommodate your dietary requirements. Don’t feel like you’re being fussy or difficult.
Action on Salt has published these handy pointers to help you avoid overdosing on salt when you’re eating out:
• Make it your choice
– Don’t be afraid to ask the chef for little or no salt to be added to your meal. Most chefs will be willing to add less salt to food if you ask, after all they wouldn’t dream of adding sugar to your tea or coffee without asking you, so why should they add salt?
• Keep it simple
– Asking for less salt to be added to food is easier with some dishes that others. Steaks, grilled fish and chicken which can be prepared with less salt. Ask for no salt to be added by the chef and then give it a squeeze of lemon and a grinding of black pepper at the table and you will have a perfectly tasty dish.
• Beware of hidden salt in ‘healthy options’
– Salads often have many salty additions, such as croutons, olives, cheese, dressing, marinated meat/vegetables, cured meats like ham or bacon, smoked salmon etc. Avoid salads which are based on these salty ingredients and ask for the dressing to be served on the side.
• Know your marinades and sauces
– Ask for your sauces and dressings to be served on the side so that you can choose how much to use.
• Always taste your food before adding salt
– Salt is often added in the kitchen and might taste perfect without any extra added.