Salt and hypertension (high blood pressure)
By Veronica Mitchell, Gastroenterology Dietitian
People often ask me if salt is bad for you. By now you know my principle of “there is no bad food, just bad diets”!
Salt, also known as sodium chloride is made up of two parts, sodium and chlorine. Sodium is an essential nutrient, but the body is unable to produce it naturally. It has a role in regulating many bodily functions including the transport of oxygen and nutrients. It also facilitates other functions such as fluid and acid – base balance. Salt is found naturally in many foods like meat and vegetables. It is also used in foods to make it more palatable and as a preservative to extend its shelf life.
The problem is we are consuming too much salt. In fact we don’t need to add salt to our diet because we could derive all the salt our bodies need from natural sources. Too much salt in our diet has a negative effect on our health. It could increase blood pressure and contribute to the risk of stroke and heart disease. It has also been implicated in increasing the risk of developing osteoporosis, stomach cancer, obesity and kidney problems.
The current recommended daily salt consumption is no more than 6g, which is about one teaspoon of salt. However, the average daily intake of salt in the UK is about 8.1g, the equivalent of one and a half teaspoon. About 75% of our salt intake comes from added salt mainly from processed meat, ready meals, soups, ready – made sauces, breads, cereals, and snacks such as crisps, biscuits and salted nuts.
There are several strategies you can employ to reduce your salt intake:
- Either add salt at the table after you have tasted your food or add a moderate amount of salt during cooking and remove the salt shaker at the table.
- Gradually reduce the amount of salt and use more black pepper, herbs and spices to make your food more flavoursome. Garlic, ginger, chilli, lime and lemon juice are ideal low calorie flavours you could use instead of salt. Your taste will adapt surprisingly fast!
- Try to reduce the amount of processed foods from ready meals and snacks you are eating. The main foods that are high in salt include salted meats such as bacon, ham, sausages, pate, salami and smoked or tinned fish such as salmon, tuna or pilchard. Canned foods especially those in brine, packet and instant soups are also high in salt. In addition, stock cubes, gravy powders or granules as well as condiments like soy sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise and pickles also add to your salt consumption.
- Ask in restaurants and takeaways for low salt options or request for salt not to be added.
- If you have to rely on ready – made foods, read the food labels and choose the lower salt options.
Reading food labels could be a bit of a minefield. Previously, salt was either labelled as such or as sodium. From December 2014, all food labels will only list salt. This would make it easier to see and compare how much salt is contained in food products. So, how much salt is too much? Below is a practical guideline you can use when reading labels and using the traffic light system of labelling:
- Foods high in salt will have more than 1.5g salt per 100g (RED)
- Foods with moderate amount of salt will have between 0.3g and 1.5g salt per 100g (AMBER)
- Foods that are low in salt will have 0.3g or less per 100g (GREEN)
It is important to remember that we don’t often eat foods that are in 100g packages. So, as a guideline, if you are having ready meals or sandwiches, try to choose those that are less than 1.25g salt per meal. For individual foods such as soups or sauces, aim for 0.75g salt per serving.