Cutting out or reducing sugar intake has become very fashionable over the last few years, but what about salt? Charlene Yared-West makes a strong case for the latter.
The recommended daily salt allowance is one teaspoon, but many South Africans are consuming more than that; up to three teaspoons a day because most salt is hidden in everyday foods. The Heart and Stroke Foundation aim to reduce discretionary salt intake among the public by encouraging consumers to cook with less salt and salty ingredients. Salt Awareness Week kicks off on March 20 to March 26 to encourage South Africans everywhere to eat less salt, but why is salt so harmful?
Why should we eat less salt?
Excess salt intake can result in high blood pressure, thereby contributing to heart disease, strokes and kidney disease. “High blood pressure (otherwise known as hypertension) can be very dangerous since the disease has many secondary consequences. However, at the same time hypertension doesn’t always present with symptoms. As a result, you can have a very high blood pressure and not know it. Hence you should check your blood pressure regularly,” says Lila Bruk, registered Dietitian at Lila Bruk & Associates.
In a 2012 research paper entitled Reducing the sodium content of high-salt foods: Effect on cardiovascular disease in South Africa, researchers estimated that a reduction of salt from breads, margarine, soup and seasonings would amount to a 0.85 gram daily reduction per person. Using expected improvements in blood pressure and national statistics, they calculated the expected impact on the nation’s health. This level of salt reduction is estimated to result in 7 400 fewer cardiovascular deaths and 4 300 fewer non-fatal strokes every year. “If you do have high blood pressure, it is important to have less salt in your diet, but also to have more fresh fruit and vegetables, more calcium, exercise regularly and lose weight if necessary,” adds Bruk.
Salt is hidden in everyday foods
A lot of foods that we consume already contain a generous amount of hidden salt, explains Margaret Lehobye, registered dietitian at Life Roseacres. “In general, processed foods are higher in sodium, so by reading the labels properly and by choosing fresh, unprocessed foods you can lower your salt consumption drastically.” On average, South Africans eat double the recommended limit per day and most of this salt comes from what is added during the manufacturing process. Lehobye points out that foods like biltong, stock powder, prepared sauces and marinades, soup mixes, commercially made cereals, biscuits and snack foods (e.g. crisps and pretzels, frozen and tinned foods, convenience meals, tinned meat or fish and salted nuts are examples of foods that contain a lot of hidden salt – and should be eaten in moderation or preferably; not at all.
Are there healthier alternatives?
Most people associate less salt with meals being less tasty, but flavour can come from a variety of different herbs, juices and fresh ingredients which do not contain salt. In truth, one’s pallet can be trained to require less salt. “Try eating raw, unsalted nuts, homemade sauces and marinades (for example, using more lemon juice, garlic, ginger, herbs and spices to add flavour), fresh fruit as a snack, low sodium soup mixes, oats rather than pre-packaged cereals, and fresh veggies rather than tinned wherever possible,” says Bruk. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, lemon is the new salt! Lemon flavours food fragrantly without the risk of pushing up your blood pressure. “Healthy food doesn’t need to be bland and boring, adds Lehobye. “Making dietary and lifestyle modifications does require an adjustment in one’s sense of taste, so gradually introduce low-sodium foods and alternatives and cut back on table salt until you reach your sodium goal. That’ll give your palate time to adjust. It also helps to try out different ways of flavouring your food, which will soon result in one appreciating the lighter, fresher taste of less salty food.”
Get Food label savvy
Ingredients are labelled in descending order. Consumers should avoid products which have salt high up in the ingredients list. “Avoid foods with a sodium content of > 600mg per 100g of that product,” says Lehobye. “Consumers should familiarise themselves with other names that are used for salt such as Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), Baking soda and baking powder.” HSFSA also encourages consumers to choose Heart Mark products as they are lower in salt as compared to other items on the shelf in grocery stores.
Helping South Africans choose less salt
Legislation reducing the salt content of commonly consumed foods came into effect on 30 July 2016. This legislation is important, but it will take more to resolve our excessive salt intake. South African consumers add on average 4 grams of salt to food at home – and this does not account for the hidden salt in bought food. “I think it’s an excellent initiative. I feel that when it comes to behaviour change, much of the resistance to change comes from being afraid of the unknown. However, if changes have been made in this gradual way, it allows the public’s taste buds to change with minimal effort in a relatively “painless” way. In addition, the legislation also creates greater awareness with regard to changing salt consumption habits. So, all round a great campaign,” says Bruk. Lehobye adds that foods affected by the legislation like potato chips and processed meats will still be very salty, but that consumers should demand less salty products – and at home, add less salt to their cooking and at the table. “It is the only way to create change is to change what we eat. The big food corporations will then change the foods to suit the healthier marketplace. That hope can become reality – but as citizens, we have to spearhead that transformation by choosing healthier alternatives.”