spices on spoons on table

Assault on Salt

This week marks Salt Awareness Week in the UK, a week-long campaign aimed at increasing awareness about salt intake and its effects. You may have seen the numerous articles in the news yesterday talking about salt intake in the UK, particularly the salt content of takeaway meals. The headlines revealed that some of the worst takeaway dishes from some Chinese restaurants contain 5x as much salt as one Big Mac! Most people know by now that salt content in takeaways and ready meals is a lot higher than food they would cook at home but what is the deal with salt? What does it do, how much should we be having and how can we avoid it?

The Basics

Table salt, also known as sodium chloride (NaCl) is a mineral and Britain's favourite food topping. It enhances the flavour of food by blocking bitterness and enhancing sweetness. Saltiness is one of the five flavours that humans taste, with the others being sweetness, bitterness, sourness and umami (meat flavour). Salt in foods activates the taste receptors in our mouths that detect these flavours and signals to our brain this taste, therefore, the more salt, the more taste our brain perceives. We are evolutionarily designed to like and seek out salty foods as salt is one of the key electrolytes in our body and is essential for water balance - we would die without it so it is vital for us to consume enough of it.

The Not So Good

Because of salt's vital role in water balance, it means it is very important in controlling our blood pressure. Excess salt in the blood draws water to it and increases the volume of our blood, this then increases blood pressure. While some salt is necessary to maintain our blood pressure and our body fluids, the amount that we actually need is much less than what most humans consume. Excess salt intake is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease because of the dramatic effects it has on our blood pressure. Public health organisations have been focusing on reducing our salt intake for decades and it has slowly been declining, but not enough. Let's look at some of the stats. 

  • In the UK, adults are recommended to consume no more than 6g per day, by 2025 the target is 5g per day.
  • The average adult consumes 8.6g per day but many are having much more.
  • Reducing salt intake from 10g per day to 5g per day reduces cardiovascular disease risk by 17% - this would avoid 3 million deaths from CVD per year.

Salt in Foods

75% of the salt we eat comes from processed foods and meals eaten outside of the home. When we add salt to our cooking, we can see how much we add and usually only add a sprinkle. Takeaways and restaurant meals can have huge amounts of salt hidden inside and can easily use up our daily intake in one meal. Food companies in the UK have been challenged to reduce the salt content of their foods and over the last decade many foods have come down by 20-40% but we still have a long way to go. Let's look at some of the biggest offenders:

  • Chinese beef with black bean sauce and fried rice: 11.5g (twice your daily limit!)
  • 1 Large Dominos Pizza: 12-16g
  • Marks & Spencers crispy sweet and sour chicken: 4.1g 
  • Napolenta pizza at Pizza Express: 9.6g
  • Baxters tomato soup: 3.5g

As a general rule of thumb, you are always better off cooking your own food if you are trying to eat less salt. That's not to say you should never eat out or have a takeaway, just be aware that it is likely higher in salt content and may have used up your daily salt intake in one go. When you are buying foods with nutrition labels, the UK traffic light system clearly shows the salt content on the front. If the salt box is red this means it has a high amount of salt in it so pick wisely!
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