Although most people know that salt is bad for their health, on average Australians are still consuming much more salt than they should be. With strong evidence linking salt to some of our biggest killers – including high blood pressure, strokes, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease – reducing our salt intake should be a priority for all of us. Unfortunately though, most of us don’t think to address this issue until we experience the damaging side effects of years and years of eating too much salt. As a society I think we do a lot of patching up problems after the fact, when it would make a whole lot more sense to make some simple changes earlier on to reduce the risk of these problems arising in the first place.
You may be thinking that you’re doing pretty well with salt, that you don’t add it at the table, so you can’t be consuming all that much. I come across clients in my work as a dietitian who tell me that they don’t eat any salt at all! This is almost impossible as salt is present in most of the foods that we eat. In fact up to 75% of the salt that we eat comes from foods in the form that we buy them. Yes, processed foods are the main culprit here as salt is used as a natural preservative for everything from bread to cereals to canned vegetables, but it is also present in small amounts in most fresh foods, even vegetables and meats! Although I’m not saying that we need to avoid fresh vegetables, you can see that the salt you are eating can add up very quickly.
So quickly that it is no surprise that most of us are eating way too much of it. The average Australian consumes around 9g of salt a day – much higher than the 5g recommendation from the World Health Organisation and the 6g recommended upper limit from the Heart Foundation and the National Health and Medical Research Association. No matter which way you look at it, we’re eating way too much salt!
Although there have been some improvements in our food supply over recent years with many manufacturers committing to reducing the salt in their products, when it comes down to it we need to take responsibility for our own health and pay more attention to what we and our families are eating. Here’s how:
- Eat out less - We all know that takeaway foods are notoriously salty, but restaurants meals aren’t too much better. Chefs add salt like it’s going out of fashion because they know our taste buds like it. Unfortunately, the more salt you eat, the more accustomed to the salt your tastebuds become, so you end up needing more of it to get the same taste. Salt also makes us thirsty, so restaurants make more money on the drinks tab when they up the salt! The occasional meal out isn’t going to cause too much trouble, but if you’re eating out multiple times a week the salt can really stack up.
- Remove the salt shaker from the dinner table - Whether it’s Celtic sea salt, Himalayan salt, Peruvian pink salt, French grey salt, celery salt, garlic salt or onion salt it’s still high in sodium which is what we are getting too much of! If the salt shaker is on the table it’s easier to add to your meal, but do you really need it or are you just adding it out of habit? If you’re someone who adds salt without tasting your meal first it’s a sign that you may have a salt habit to kick. Put the shaker in the cupboard and re-train your taste buds to appreciate other flavours.
- Add other flavours when you’re cooking - Use herbs and spices (fresh or dried) generously and remember to go easy on the stock cubes as they are high in salt. Garlic is tasty and versatile, going well with all sorts of cuisines. Bump up the pepper. Try lemongrass and ginger in your Asian meals. Get brave with different types of chillies. Add lemon or lime juice for a punch of fresh flavour. Don’t be shy to add more of these flavourings than you are used to as you’ll need some extra flavour while you taste buds adjust to having less salt, especially in the first 4-6 weeks. You could try planting yourself a herb garden so you always have some fresh herbs on hand.
- Eat less processed foods - Food in packages and tins can be high in salt as it is used as a preservative to lengthen shelf life. Look for foods labelled ‘low salt’ or ‘no added salt’. Check the nutrition panel and aim for products with less than 400mg of sodium per 100g as much as possible. Those with less than 120mg of sodium per 100g are the best options, but this level may be hard to find for some foods. Don’t forget staples like bread and cereals which can be quite high in salt.
- Use fresh or frozen vegetables - Stick to fresh or frozen vegetables as much as possible and when you do buy canned vegetables make sure you choose the low salt option. Frozen vegetables don’t have salt added as a preservative because they are snap frozen to preserve the quality of the food, so they have a similar salt content to fresh vegetables (ie – only trace amounts) – just make sure you skip the ones with added sauces. Even low salt canned vegetables can have 10-20 times as much salt as fresh and frozen versions, so go for fresh or frozen as often as you can.
- Use store-bought sauces and marinades sparingly - These are usually quite high in salt. Try making your own marinades using fresh herbs, citrus juices and vinegars.
- Limit processed and cured meats - Salt is used as a preservative in meat products such as bacon, sausages, salami, meatloaf and pre-made hamburger patties. Enjoy these things as treats every now and then rather than having them on a regular basis. Make your own burger patties – they’ll have less salt and a whole lot more flavour.
- Use lower salt cheeses - Salt is used in the cheese-making process, however ricotta, mozzarella, swiss and cottage cheeses are naturally lower in salt. Parmesan is quite high in salt, but you can usually get away with using less of it as it is quite full of flavour, so a small sprinkle is fine.
- Pay attention to sweet foods - You would be forgiven for thinking that salt is only a consideration for savoury foods, but you would be mistaken. Salt is still used as a preservative in sweet foods as well as to assist the baking process and balance out the flavour in things like sweet biscuits and cereals. In fact, sweet biscuits can have more salt than savoury ones! So pay attention to those labels and aim for less than 120mg per 100g where possible (or less than 400mg per 100g for some products).
- Use FoodSwitch to find lower salt options - Simply scan the barcode of a food product using your phones camera and FoodSwitch will give you an easy traffic light system and even show similar products that are healthier options. Turn on the SaltSwitch filter and the healthier options will be listed in order of their salt content. It’s a FREE app and available for Apple and Android phones – search for it in the app store or go here for more information.
A note on sodium vs salt:
6g of salt = 2400mg sodium
You may have noticed that the guidelines talk about salt in grams per day, while food labels show the sodium content of food products. These words are used interchangeably, but they technically aren’t the same thing. Without getting too deep into the chemistry side of things, table salt is made up of sodium and chloride. So sodium is part of what we call ‘salt’ in our food. Each 1g of salt contains around 400mg of sodium, so the 6g upper limit for salt equates to around 2400mg of sodium each day and our current average intake of 9g equates to about 3600mg per day.
This week has been World Salt Awareness Week. For more info on this campaign, check out the World Action on Salt & Health (WASH) website here.
Have you checked food labels for sodium lately? Which products did you find hidden salt in?
Original salt image source: Grant Cochrane on FreeDigitalPhotos.net