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Why you need to "salt" out your diet

7 Feb 2003

A recent study concluded that the majority of us consume double the recommended amount of salt. But is this important? Do we need to cut down on salt – and if so, how do we do it?

The survey by the Food Commission compared the amount of salt in four different types of processed food – white bread, crisps, baked beans and canned tomato soup – with levels in the same products in 1978. It was disappointed to find that, despite food industry claims to have reduced the amount of salt in products, levels had changed very little – and had even increased in some products.

Furthermore, a closer look at foods aimed at children revealed that many of them – including Burger King kids’ meals, Dairylea Lunchables and Teletubbies canned pasta – actually included more than the child’s recommended maximum salt intake in just one serving. In many cases, they were saltier than seawater.

Why this is important

So what’s the problem with high salt levels? Although salt is an essential part of our diet – it helps our bodies function properly by aiding our nerves and maintaining our muscles – too much can lead to osteoporosis, asthma and cancer of the stomach.

It also increases blood pressure and high blood pressure is behind 170,000 deaths every year in England alone, contributing to strokes and heart attacks. A reduction in salt intake would save an estimated 30,000 lives a year, say experts.

The government’s minimum salt level recommendation for an adult is 1.4 grams a day, although we should be aiming for 4g a day. It puts a maximum recommended level at 6g a day.

The problem is that 90 per cent of us consume over 6g a day and many eat double or even triple that.

The reason behind the rise is an increasing reliance on processed food (which has a far higher salt content) and a move away from fresh produce in our everyday lives. Estimates vary, but between 65 and 80 per cent of our daily salt intake now comes from processed foods.

The problem is even more worrying in children. The government body that reviews salt in our diet, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), has given a target daily intake of under 1g for babies, 2g for children up to six, and 5g for those aged between 7 and 14.

However, if a child’s portion of baked beans contains 2.5g and a Burger King kids’ meal 3.3g, it becomes clear that children are consuming dangerous levels of salt every day. The furring of the arteries that is behind heart attacks and strokes starts in childhood, doctors have revealed – leaving a ticking time bomb in many kids.

What are we doing about it?

The government is trying to reduce our salt intake. SACN is meeting this month to discuss the responses it had from its investigation last year into salt and health. In the report, it warns repeatedly of high salt intake, especially with regard to children.

A spokeswoman from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) says it is in discussion with the food industry to reduce the salt it includes in products. But, she explains, no one can force manufacturers to change their methods. “At the moment there is no legal recourse. It’s all consumer choice – we aren’t going to prescribe the amount of salt you can put in a product. But we are in discussions to find reasonable ways to reduce the salt level in many foods,” she says.

The food manufacturers themselves defend their salt levels. The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) says the claims that there has been no reduction in salt are “out of date, out of touch and based on self-selecting surveys”.

It points to a government report in November 2001, which said bread manufacturers had reduced the amount of salt in their products. The Snack, Nut and Crisp Manufacturers’ Association says that salt levels in crisps have fallen 25 per cent over 10 years.

“We use salt for various reasons,” explains an FDF spokeswoman. “For taste, for flavouring, food safety – it gives the product a longer shelf life. And it also contributes to the texture and quality of the food.”

The chef’s view

However you choose to look at it, though, many processed foods contain too much salt for healthy consumption. Salt masks what would otherwise be very bland food. It is also something that the palate gets used to, as it stimulates the taste buds.

Experts say, however, that after three or four weeks of eating a low-salt diet, your taste buds increase in sensitivity, enabling your palate to appreciate subtler flavours.

Luke Finn, the head chef at Finns’ seafood restaurant in Newquay harbour, Cornwall, agrees. “Processed food is not as good as fresh produce simply because it isn’t fresh. You add a pinch of seasoning to steak or fish and it brings out the flavour, it’s a flavour enhancer. But if you add too much, it’s horrible.”

“Of course, different salts do different things,” he adds. “Sea salt and rock salt have a nicer flavour but table salt is ground right down and is much stronger because of it.”

The solution

So, how do you cut down on your salt levels if most of it comes from processed food? Well, clearly the answer is to cut down on ready-made foods and eat more fresh produce.

But if you buy food packaged as “low-salt”, manufacturers will supply more of it to retain their market.

Alternatively, cut down on salt in your meals and replace it with herbs and spices, or lemon juice or vinegar. Or why not add onions, garlic, ginger or chillies? Anything that adds more flavour to the dish itself will reduce the need for salt to stimulate the taste buds and make the meal enjoyable.

Further information:

Food Standards Agency
Food and Drink Federation

Link to this story on Discovery Health

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