Salt Intake

Dietitian, Juliette Kellow rounds up the latest information on salt intake.

A Pinch of Salt?

By Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD

Hardly a day has gone by without salt hitting the headlines recently. At the start of October 2007, MRC Human Nutrition Research published its report Why 6g? A summary of the scientific evidence for the salt intake target. As the name suggests, this report summarises the evidence behind the target to reduce daily intake of salt to no more than 6g a day.

Then in the middle of the month, a new report from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) revealed we’re no longer taking health advice to reduce salt intake with a pinch of salt. The report encouragingly found that almost half of all Brits are trying to eat less salt, mainly by not adding salt to cooking or meals. Sadly though, the report also found that two thirds of us still don’t know we should be having a maximum of 6g a day and only a third of us look at labels to identify the salt content of the food we eat. No surprises then, when the FSA announced the launch of it’s new TV advertising campaign, which encourages us to look at food labels.

It’s good to hear that salt has received such a high profile, as there’s now overwhelming evidence that reducing intakes can help to prevent high blood pressure (hypertension), which currently affects around a third of all adults in England and Wales. This is a major health problem as hypertension is a risk factor for stroke and heart disease. Fortunately though, experts believe that reducing salt intakes from the current high of 9.5g to just 6g a day will result in a 13% reduction in stroke and a 10% reduction in heart disease.

In particular, it’s the sodium component of salt (or sodium chloride) that’s linked to high blood pressure. While sodium occurs naturally in many foods and is used in food additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), salt itself still accounts for more than 90 percent of the sodium in our diets. The catch is, most of this sodium no longer comes from the salt cellar. In fact, three quarters of the salt in our diets comes from processed foods, with just 10 percent coming from the salt we add during cooking or at the table, and the remaining 15% that occurs naturally in food.

This means the key to keeping salt intakes down is to eat fewer processed, salty foods such as sauces, pickles, crisps, savoury snacks, canned and cured meats, sausages, burgers, ham, canned fish in brine or tomato sauce, takeaways, ready meals and canned soups. The good news is, many of these foods are also high in calories and fat making them poor choices if you’re trying to lose weight. Meanwhile, it’s worth bearing in mind that many cereals, bread and cheese are high in salt, although they contain plenty of other nutrients, too.

Fortunately, the food industry has already made progress in helping to cut the salt content of many foods. For example, sodium levels in bread have been reduced by around 25% since the late 1980s and recently by a further 5% in sliced bread. Nevertheless, there’s still a long way to go and until major reductions are made, it’s up to consumers to be vigilant when it comes to looking at food labels to identify salt intake.

Unfortunately, many food labels only provide details on the sodium content and don’t convert this into an equivalent value for salt. To convert sodium into salt you need to multiply the sodium figure by 2.5. Otherwise, use this as a simple guideline: according to the FSA, a lot of sodium is considered to be 0.5g or more per 100g, whereas a little sodium is considered to be 0.1g or less per 100g. It’s also worth remembering that products claiming to be ‘reduced-salt’ may still contain quite a lot of the white stuff – reduced-salt means the product only needs to contain 25 percent less salt than the standard product.

Finally, as well as cutting salt intakes, there’s good evidence that eating a diet low in fat and saturates and high in fruit, veg, low-fat dairy products and wholegrains can help to reduce blood pressure. Plus it’s important to avoid drinking too much alcohol – according to the British Heart Foundation, women who consistently drink more than three units of alcohol a day and men who drink more than four units daily are more likely to have high blood pressure. Fortunately, this is almost identical to the dietary advice we recommend at WLR to help you lose weight – and it’s no coincidence that losing weight is also essential in helping to bring blood pressure down!

Salt Q&A

How much salt should I have?

No more than 6g per day.

How do I convert sodium into salt content?

Multiply the sodium figure by 2.5.

What are the health risks of too much salt?

Known risks are high blood pressure (hypertension) stroke and heart disease.

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