Most of us are trying to reduce our salt intake now that we know about its strong link to high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. The problem is that most of the salt we eat isn’t added when we cook, it’s in the processed foods we eat. Nutritionist Fiona Carruthers and HFG dietitian Zoe Wilson explain how you can cut your salt intake.
The average Australian consumes 3–4 times more sodium than the upper limit recommended by health experts. Think you’re safe because you don’t add salt to your meals? Unfortunately, more than three-quarters of our salt intake comes from processed foods.
To help cut our national salt consumption, industry, retailers and government are working together under the Food and Health Dialogue (a broader effort aimed at addressing poor dietary habits and making healthier food choices easier for Australians) to reduce the amount of salt added to food. Leading food manufacturers and major supermarkets have so far pledged to reduce sodium levels in bread, cereals, simmer sauces and processed meats. Plans are in place to tackle soups, processed poultry, savoury pies and large volume cheese. But, in the meantime, how do you keep your salt intake under control?
Where does salt hide?
Only about 15 per cent of the salt we eat actually comes from the salt shaker. About 10 per cent is found naturally in food, and the rest comes from processed foods. It’s not always foods we think of as ‘salty’, either. In fact, around 25 per cent of our salt comes from bread and cereals. Another 10 per cent comes from processed meats, 6–7 per cent from sauces and 5 per cent from soups and stocks.
Can’t food companies just cut out the salt?
Salt can’t be removed completely from food. It‘s a fundamental ingredient in many foods – butter, cheese, cured meats, salad dressings and pickles – and in addition to helping preserve food, it’s important for taste and texture. It makes a gherkin crisp, makes cured meat tender and strengthens the gluten in bread. If you don’t want soggy breakfast cereal as soon as you add milk, manufacturers have to add salt to keep the flakes crunchy.
The good news is that food manufacturers are working on making gradual reductions in sodium over time, thus training our palates to adjust to the less salty flavour. Under the Food and Health Dialogue, salt reduction targets have now been set for 85 per cent of leading brand simmer sauces and 95 per cent of processed meat products. Major food companies, as well as retailers Woolworths, Coles and ALDI, have agreed to reduce the sodium content of their pasta sauces, Indian-style sauces and other simmer sauces that currently exceed 420mg sodium per 100g, and Asian-style simmer sauces that exceed 680mg sodium per 100g, by 15 per cent by the end of 2014. Salt reduction targets have also been set by companies representing more than 80 per cent of the bread market and 60 per cent of the ready to eat breakfast cereal market.
What to look for on food labels
In the meantime, it is possible to buy lower-salt processed foods. Look at the sodium content on the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP). Use the per serving column to work out how much you will actually eat and use the 100g column to compare products. You can determine which products are low or high sodium with the following guidelines:
Low sodium = less than 120mg sodium per 100g
Moderate sodium = between 120–400mg sodium per 100g
High sodium = more than 400mg sodium per 100g
Fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and fresh lean meats are generally very low in sodium and should make up the majority of your diet.
Are there any ‘healthy’ salts?
The marketers of some salts (such as Himalayan salt) may claim their product is beneficial, however, there is no evidence to suggest this is the case. These salts have the same sodium content as other types of salt. The bottom line is that all salt is mostly sodium chloride, and any other components listed are present in miniscule amounts that have no effect on taste or nutrition.
Why cut the salt?
Sodium plays an important role in balancing our body fluids, such as blood and sweat, which carry nutrients around the body and carry waste materials out. But too much sodium leads to more fluid being retained, increasing the volume of your blood. Higher blood volume raises blood pressure and can result in high blood pressure, also known as hypertension.
According to the Australian Division of World Action on Salt and Health (AWASH), high blood pressure causes the third greatest burden of disease in Australia after smoking and physical inactivity. It is a major risk factor for heart disease – accounting for 60 per cent of strokes and 50 per cent of all heart disease. Globally, about half of all deaths from heart disease and stroke are caused by high blood pressure. In fact, the World Health Organization states that having high blood pressure is a greater risk factor for heart disease than smoking or being overweight or obese.
The good news is that cutting the salt in your diet can help lower blood pressure. A large Cochrane review showed that a modest reduction in salt intake resulted in a significant decrease in blood pressure in people with normal or high blood pressure. And it’s not just older people with high blood pressure who benefit from cutting the salt: studies involving nearly 970 children and teenagers found that reducing sodium intake by an average 42 per cent led to immediate improvements in blood pressure levels.
Easy ways to cut salt
Make foods like vegetables, fruit, lean meat, fish, chicken, legumes and wholegrains the basis of your diet. The fewer highly-processed foods you eat, the less salt you are likely to consume.
Don’t add salt during cooking or at the table. If you must, do one or the other.
Replace salt with other flavours such as garlic, lemon, lime, vinegar, herbs and spices.
Carefully read the labels of bread, processed meat, ready-made sauces, dairy products and breakfast cereals, and choose the lower-sodium options.
Mix flavoured, higher-sodium varieties of rice and pasta with plain versions to spread out the sodium load.
Rinse canned fish, legumes and vegetables before using.
Train your taste buds to enjoy a less salty flavour (it only takes three weeks for them to adjust).
Limit your use of chicken, celery and garlic salts – they are all still salt!
Where salt hides
Cereals with the Heart Tick are lower in sodium to meet the Tick criteria. Tick or not, choose cereals with less than 400mg sodium per 100g. Add fruit and yoghurt to balance out your breakfast.
Choose bread with less than 400mg sodium per 100g.
Marmite and Vegemite
If you decide to use them, spread thinly. Alternatively, choose other low-salt spreads some days of the week (e.g. peanut butter).
Cheese, crackers, potato chips
Bagel or pita crisps, raw vegetable crudités, unsalted nuts (30g servings).
Canned or instant soups
Homemade soup, or soups with less than 800mg sodium per serve.
Processed meats including ham, salami and chicken loaf
Instead of a ham and cheese sandwich, try using roast beef, grilled chicken, turkey breast, or ham off the bone.
Soy sauce-based stir-fry
Stir-fries flavoured with chilli, ginger, garlic and green onion. If you are adding soy sauce, choose a reduced-salt version.
Flavoured packet noodles or pasta
Plain pasta or noodles with homemade stir-fry sauce.
Baked beans, tinned beans and tinned vegetables
Reduced-salt baked beans, and no-added-salt tinned tomatoes and other vegetables.
For more information
To find out more about salt reduction targets, go to www.health.gov.au and search for ‘food and health dialogue’.
Salt or sodium?
Salt is mainly sodium and chloride, of which around 40 per cent is sodium, the main element that affects our health.
1g salt = 390mg sodium
1 teaspoon (6g) salt = 2.3g (2300mg) sodium – the recommended daily upper limit. The Heart Foundation recommends anyone at risk of cardiovascular disease or with high blood pressure aim for less than 1600mg sodium/day.
Did you know? In the 1700s, people ate an astounding 70g salt a day as salt was used to preserve so many foods.
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