Recently there has been much publicity about the high content of
salt in many foods and it's effect on our health. Salt has always
been an important part of our diet and was once traded pound for
pound with gold in Timbuktu as caravans started across the Sahara.
But unless you've just run a marathon or you live in the desert,
you actually only need a small amount of salt every day!
Salt is a major source of sodium, which is essential for
maintaining the water balance of all tissues and fluids in our
bodies. The problem is that most people consume more than is
required. In fact, we currently eat an average of around 12 grams
of salt a day - twice as much as is currently recommended for a
healthy diet. In addition, based on body weight, the average
salt intake of children is even higher than that of adults !
Why cut the salt?
A high salt intake increases the amount of fluid retained by the
body. This raises blood pressure, which, in turn, contributes to an
increased risk of strokes and heart attacks. People with high blood
pressure are three times more likely to develop heart disease and
stroke, and twice as likely to die from these diseases than people
with normal levels. In England alone, high blood pressure
contributes to more than 170,000 deaths a year. Salt also has an
effect on bone demineralisation (osteoporosis) and kidney
Why do we eat so much?
Surprisingly, most salt in our diet does not come from over use
of the 'salt-cellar' at the dining table or during home cooking.
The fact is, that about 75% of our intake now comes from the salt
found in processed foods. This is not limited to obviously salty
foods like crisps and snacks either. Many people do not realise
that bread, biscuits, cereals, cakes, soups and ready prepared
meals are often high in salt content and may account for nearly 40%
of our salt intake ! For example, some cereals provide as much salt
as Atlantic sea water (1g sodium/100g).
Meat and meat products often contribute another 20%. In fact, a
recent food survey by the Food Standards Agency revealed that many
popular ready-meals are very high in salt, with one meal in the
sample containing 98.3% of a whole days salt quota of 6g!
Be salt savvy!
By far the easiest way to cut you salt intake is not to add it
to food, either while cooking or at the table. However, as this
only accounts for around a quarter of our salt intake, it is
equally important to look at labels when buying processed foods and
choose those with less salt content.
The problems is, that looking at labels for salt content can be
very confusing ! Currently most, but not all, processed foods are
labelled in terms of sodium in grams per 100 grams of the product.
But, in order to calculate how much salt food contains, you must
multiply the sodium content by 2.5. For example, if a packet of
crisps contain 0.4g of sodium that is equal to 1g of
However, reducing salt intake is only one aspect of a healthy
diet. Studies show that the greatest decreases in high blood
pressure is seen when a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and low-fat
foods is combined with a low salt diet. Increasing physical
activity is also associated with reductions in blood pressure,
especially aerobic exercise.
A lifetime of salt
From birth to one year, babies need virtually no salt at all.
Regardless of how bland the food tastes to you, there is no benefit
in adding salt to their foods. Once your child becomes a toddler,
be aware that many ready-prepared food marketed at children and
their lunchboxes are high in salt. For example, one portion of some
popular 'lunchable' meals, combined with a packet of crisps, can
add up to a whopping 4g of salt - more than the entire daily
recommended amount for a young child !
Preferences for particular tastes develop early in life so, by
keeping salty foods to a minimum, children are encouraged to
develop good habits into adulthood. These lessons could prove
useful in older life, because as we age our taste buds tend to
become less sensitive, tempting us to add more salt to our foods
without realising it.
Recently, the government have recommended a reduction in salt
intake for adults to 6g per day, roughly equivalent to one level
teaspoon. For the first time, they have also set guidelines for
children, proportionate to their needs (see chart). With salt in
the spotlight, many within the food industry are now making moves
to improve the nutritional value of their products. So while there
is no way at present to tell who might develop high blood pressure
from eating too much sodium, becoming 'salt aware' consumers could
be of benefit to us all.
• Wean yourself off the salt-cellar - take it off the table
• Try using other flavourings such as fresh, frozen or dried
herbs, spices, chilli, garlic, pepper, vinegar etc. instead of
• Be aware that salt substitutes are not always salt free.
• Rock salt and sea salt have no health benefits to table
• Remember that salt taste receptors take time to adjust, so
food may initially taste bland. However, within 2-3 weeks the taste
receptors become more sensitive and high salt foods often then
• Choose fresh and fresh-frozen foods over canned and bottled
goods. Salt is used widely as a preservative in non-perishable
• Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, which are naturally lower
in sodium and fats.
• Try to reduce your intake of processed foods and highly salted
snacks. Check labels for a similar lower-salt
Most people don't realise that they are eating high levels of
salt in everyday foods such as bread, breakfast cereals and pastry
products, yet up to 75% of their salt intake comes from processed
The 'target intakes' of grams of salt per day, which we should
all aim to keep below, are as follows:
Age - Grams of Salt
0-12 mths -less than 1g
7-12 mths - 1g
1-3 yrs - 2g
4-6 yrs - 3g
7-10 yrs - 5g
11yrs and over - 6g
What to watch for on labels
All of the following terms on food labels indicate sodium:
brine, baking soda, soda, baking powder, salt, mono-sodium
glutamate, sodium chloride, NaCl and any other sodium compound.
1g sodium = 2.5g salt