Hold the salt! Why cutting down on processed foods is the key to reducing salt in the diet

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This month, renewed calls have come from health professionals for us to reduce the amount of salt we consume. Currently, the average salt intake for a UK adult stands at about 10 g per day, and recommendations are that we should cut our daily intake to no more than 6 g. It is believed that this level of constraint would lead to global reductions in blood pressure that, in time, would translate into significant reductions in the rates of cardiovascular conditions such as heart attacks and strokes. Recently, I read that some doctors have become frustrated that their efforts to encourage individuals to eat less salt have not been helped by TV chefs who heartily recommend rock salt and sea salt in preference to regular table stuff.

While such salts may be more desirable from a culinary perspective, the fact is their negative effects on blood pressure are likely to be similar to those of table varieties. Personally, I am relaxed about celebrity chef salt recommendations, on the basis that the salt we add during cooking or at the table accounts for only about 10 per cent of the total salt we consume. The fact is, the great majority of our salt intake comes via processed foods. Therefore, it makes sense for those aiming to significantly reduce their salt intake to target not so much the salt they add themselves, but the salt in foods already added by the food industry.

Recently, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) urged the food industry to make significant reductions in the salt it adds to food. However, when supermarkets and food manufacturers objected to this on the basis of ‘technical’ and ‘consumer taste’ issues, the FSA lamely relaxed the proposed targets. It is perhaps no surprise that that food industry might be putting profit before public health but, personally, I had hoped for a little better from the Government agency chiefly responsible for food policy in the UK.

I suggest that those keen to reduce their salt consumption should vote with their feet by simply consuming less salt-laden processed fare. It is sometimes useful to compare the saltiness of foods with sea water, which contains about 2.5 g of salt per 100 g. Bread contains about half this level of salt, while some foods such as cornflakes, sausages and other processed meat products can contain salt levels equivalent to or even higher than sea water. Food manufacturers have got into the habit of listing the salt content of food not as salt itself, but as sodium. Watch out for this, as the sodium level must be multiplied by 2.5 in order to calculate the equivalent amount of salt. Avoiding salt-saturated processed food should help to protect us from the unsavoury effects of high blood pressure.

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