Dear Doctor investigates the properties of salt and poses the question: how much is too much?
Salt is a white crystalline powder containing sodium and chloride. Although it has many functions within the chemical industry, it is most commonly used within the food sector as a seasoning and preservative. Guidelines from the Food Standards Association (FSA) state that adults should consume no more than six grams of salt per day, which equates to 2.4 grams—or approximately one teaspoon. Unfortunately, the average adult in the UK consumes 8.1 grams per day, according to the NHS. Eating too much salt has been linked to elevated blood pressure, which can lead to wider health problems like coronary heart disease. High blood pressure (hypertension) can also put you at higher risk of suffering a stroke.
The FSA recommended maximum daily salt intake for infants, children and adults are as follows:
Age Target average salt intake (grams a day)
0-6 months Less than 1
7-12 months 1
1-3 years 2
4-6 years 3
7-10 years 5
11 years + 6
Salt or sodium?
Salt and sodium shouldn’t be confused with one another. Some food labels may include the figures for both, while others may state the sodium content only. In order to discern the amount of salt from a sodium reading, multiply the amount by 2.5. For example, one gram of sodium per 100 grams is equal to 2.5 grams of salt per 100 grams. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends ‘a reduction in sodium intake to reduce blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and coronary heart disease.'
Most people are aware of the high salt content in certain foods like crisps and dry roasted nuts. What can come as a surprise, however, are the high levels of salt lurking in other everyday items such as cereal and jarred sauces. In fact, the British Heart Foundation states that ‘around three-quarters of the salt we eat has already been added to our food before we buy it’. An extra 10 percent of our daily intake derives from the salt we add to our meals for seasoning. The final 15 percent comes from foods in which it occurs naturally. Foods that are always high in salt include anchovies, bacon, cheese, olives, pickles, prawns, salami, smoked meats, soy sauce and stock cubes.
Change your shopping habits
When food shopping, always check the label of products before buying. Even seemingly healthy goods can contain high salt levels. Look at the figure for salt per 100 grams. High traces of salt are more than 1.5 grams per 100 grams—these will be colour coded in red. Medium traces of salt will involve between 0.3 grams and 1.5 grams of salt per 100 grams—these will be colour coded in amber. Low traces of salt will fall below 0.4 grams per 100 grams—these will colour-coded in green. If you don’t feel confident interpreting food labels by yourself, try the Change4Life Food Scanner app. Simply scan the product’s barcode and it will display the amount of sugar, saturated fat and salt of the everyday item in a straightforward manner.
Mindful cooking practices
It’s undeniable that salt can work to make a dish more flavourful, but having too much in our diet can pose a serious health risk. Instead of adding extra salt to each meal, try and improve the flavour with other seasonings like fresh herbs and spices. Garlic, paprika, parsley, sage and lemon all work to transform the flavour of a dish. Making sauces and stocks from scratch is another great way to reduce your salt intake and track your daily allowance. Over time, your palate will become attuned to your low-salt lifestyle and you will crave less salty seasoning.
Did you know?
As a nation, we consume 183,000,000 kilograms of salt per year. This is equivalent to 240,000,000 kilograms of standard 750-grams table salt containers or 18,000 double-decker buses
Source: NHS Choices Salt Survival Guide
The amount cardiovascular disease costs the UK economy per year
Source: British Heart Foundation
Watch out for
Effervescent medications and vitamins can contain up to one gram of salt per tablet, consider switching to a low salt alternative.