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Salt - a tasty danger                                          April 2009


Salt – a tasty danger

saltSalt is part of all of our lives. It is in the sea, it is in our body, it is in our food.  Salt is also very clever. Many of us will probably remember from school chemistry lessons that salt increases boiling points and lowers freezing points - hence we even use it to de-ice our roads in winter.

But most of all, salt is important for its taste. Even the Romans realised that bland boring food could be brought to life with the addition of this magic substance and in some periods of history it was deemed so important that it was taxed along with wine and tobacco.

Today though, medical science has advanced and health authorities are quite clear that too much salt is bad for us. Why is this and what can it do?

Salt is actually two chemical elements, a mixture of sodium and chloride. We all know how salt the sea is – the water became saline when, over millions of years, rain and rivers washed over rocks containing sodium chloride. They picked up sodium chloride elements and carried them down into the oceans of the earth. Some of the salt in the sea also came from undersea volcanoes and hydrothermal vents.

To function properly, we all need a certain level of sodium in our bodies. It helps to maintain the concentration of body fluids at the correct levels and also is important in the transmission of electrical impulses in the nerves. It also helps cells to absorb nutrients. Salt is removed from the body through the kidneys into our urine.

But, like so many aspects of our body, balance is the key. It our levels of sodium are too high, then we will retain too much water to compensate and the volume of our bodily fluids increases.

It is generally thought that an over high level of salt and the resultant extra water stored in the body is linked to high blood pressure and also can contribute to a stroke if there are any weaknesses in the brain’s blood vessels.

How much salt is safe?

With so many foods laced with salt, it can be difficult to estimate how much we consume every day. Generally it is recommended that adults should eat no more than 6g of salt a day – they say if this was the average level of salt intake, heart attacks and strokes would be reduced by around 70,000 a year!

Most of us though eat around 10g of salt a day. This is because most of the salt we eat is hidden. Around three quarters of the salt we eat is in processed foods which have salt added before they reach our homes, foods like bread, biscuits, breakfast cereals, processed meats and prepared ready meals or takeaways. This can make it difficult to know how much salt we are eating. Only 20% of the salt we eat comes from cooking or using it at the dining table.

This salt is added to manufactured foods because it aids preservation as well as improves taste.

How can we reduce our salt intake?

The easiest way is of course to stop adding salt to food once it is served, but that is not the most important change we can make.

More importantly, we need to check food labels before we buy.

As a general guide, choose items with a reduced sodium content. Food labels often give the sodium rather than the salt content of food; a simple trick to determine the amount of salt is to multiply the sodium content by two and a half; that will give you a rough idea of the salt levels.

There seem to be a few variations in the levels of salt that are acceptable in diets. The NHS and the Food Standards Agency both say a high amount of salt is more than 1.5g for 100g (0.6 sodium) and a low amount of salt is 0.3g for 100g (0.1 sodium). These figures are a good base to work on although you will find other levels from other specialist groups and bodies.

None of us want to spend our days checking all the small print on the food we are eating, but there are some general tips that can help:
Sauces such as ketchup, tomato sauce and soy sauce all contain very high levels of salt indeed. Curry powders and stock cubes are also very salty. Instead, get extra flavour from herbs, spices and seasonings – chilli and ginger are fine.
Look out for low salt recipe books, these are increasing as the dangers of excess salt become more widely know.
Eat more fruit and vegetables - they contain potassium which balances the effect of salt on the body

Finally, if you reduce the amount of salt you eat, at first you may find the food rather bland and tasteless; but don’t give up! After a short time, you will start appreciating the true and subtle flavours of food and eventually may find heavily salted food impossible to eat!

There is lots of information available on salt. As a starting point the following sites are useful: (Food Standards Agency)

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