Salt is our body’s main source of sodium, which is required in small amounts to help keep body fluids at the correct concentration and for muscle and nerve activity. However, on average adults in the UK eat about 8.1g of salt a day when really, the NHS recommends consuming no more than 6g. This should be even lower for children and babies should have less than 1g a day.
Why is too much salt bad for us?
Having too much salt in your diet can cause high blood pressure, which in turn can increase the chances of health risks such as heart disease and stroke. High blood pressure has no symptoms and the NHS estimate that roughly one in three people in England have high blood pressure without knowing it.
Why is too little salt bad for us?
It is very unlikely to have a shortage of salt in our bodies unless you are experiencing problems with persistent diarrhoea or vomiting or another medical condition. However, if it happens symptoms can include headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, muscle cramping, disorientation and fainting. Sometimes you might have low salt levels as a side-effect to taking certain drugs.
Sea salt vs table salt
There is some debate that sea salt may be healthier than table salt in our foods. The main difference between the two is the way they are made: sea salt is produced by evaporating water from the sea and lakes, while table salt is mined from underground salt deposits. The two have a similar proportion of sodium, however, so their nutritional value in that respect is thought to be roughly the same.
The only nutritional difference between them is that table salt is generally a lot more processed to remove minerals and has added iodine, an essential nutrient that help maintain a healthy thyroid. Sea salt, on the other hand, undergoes very little processing which means the salt is left with traces of other minerals, which some consider to give sea salt added health benefits.
What foods are high in salt?
Some foods are naturally high in salt due to the way they are made. However, many other food stuffs have a lot of hidden salt in them and it is these items that are often the main culprits when it comes to excess salt in our diets.
Foods that are naturally high in salt which the NHS advise cutting down on include: smoked meats and fish, processed meats, anchovies, cheese, gravy granules, ham, olives, pickles, prawns, salted and dry-roasted nuts, soy sauce, stock cubes and yeast extract.
Foods that have hidden salt can vary widely between different brands and varieties. The NHS advise checking the labels on pre-packaged food for the salt content to determine how much salt is in your diet. Foods high in hidden salt include: bread products, pasta sauces, crisps, pizza, ready meals, soup, sandwiches, sausages, condiments, most takeaway foods and breakfast cereals. It is important to note that many of these products also contain high levels of sugar and can contribute to obesity when eaten in excess.
How can we cut down on salt?
One easy way to eat less salt is to stop adding salt to food when cooking or at the table. If you don’t want to cut extra salt out of your cooking altogether then it is also a sensible idea to reduce the amount that you add. It does not take long for the taste buds to get used to less salt, however, so you may find that you soon stop noticing the difference.
It is also important to pay attention to the labels on pre-packaged food. Most packages display information about salt content using a simple colour code: red meaning high, amber meaning medium and green meaning low. As general rule, it is best to choose foods that have low to medium levels of salt and to only have high salt foods occasionally and in very small amounts.