How to cut back on salt to boost your heart health

The week of 9–15 March 2020 is the World Action on Health and Salt, Salt Awareness Week. There are strong links to salt and heart health and it’s important to understand where the salt in our diet is coming from.

Salt on spoon

Salt on our shelves and on the table

Salt, or sodium chloride, is the well-known partner to pepper, and commonly found on tables and bench-tops worldwide. It can be added to both sweet and savoury foods, baked goods and family meals.

Salt also appears in common everyday foods such as breads, cereals and canned foods. Salt is used as a preservative, to adjust taste and texture. But as the desire for food to be produced in higher volumes and to last longer has grown, the salt content in these foods has increased over time.

Why is too much salt bad for you?

It is the sodium in salt that raises blood pressure and that raised blood pressure increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Cutting down the amount of salt we eat is one of the most important things we can do when it comes to reducing our blood pressure. In addition to having an overall healthy diet, being a healthy bodyweight and drinking alcohol only in moderation are important.

Our bodies do need a small amount of salt. Salt helps keep a balance in the body with our hydration and, usually, just the naturally occurring salt in food is enough to meet what we need. 

However, the average New Zealander's diet includes a lot of added salt from packaged and processed food, as well as the salt that we add during cooking or at the table. This is the salt that our body doesn't need, but which we are consuming every day.

What foods are high in salt?

Over 75% of the salt we eat comes from packaged and processed food, and the supermarket shelves are packed to the brim with these foods. The top sources of salt in our diet are:

  • grain products like breads and breakfast cereals
  • processed meats like bacon, sausages, canned corned beef, smoked chicken and ham
  • snack foods like biscuits, crisps and crackers
  • canned soups
  • condiments like tomato sauce, mustard, barbeque sauce, chutneys and soy sauce.

The reality is most of us have probably eaten more salt than recommended through packaged foods before we even pick up a saltshaker or drown our meal in tomato sauce.

supermarket trolley

How much salt is OK?

To reduce the risk of chronic disease it is recommended to eat no more than 4g of salt a day (1600mg sodium). Those with diagnosed health conditions, high blood pressure or heart failure need to be extra careful when it comes to reducing salt intake.

How can I eat less salt?

An easy way to reduce salt intake is to eat less processed food. Instead, look for food that is as close to its natural form as possible. Fruit, vegetables and whole grains, are a good place to start.

Cooking from scratch is another way to eat less salt. If a recipe calls for salt, or if you have a habit of adding more salt at the table, this is the one part of your salt intake you have full control over.

Think the taste might be bland and boring? You can easily add plenty of flavour to your meals by using herbs, spices and citrus (lemon or lime zest), dressings and vinegar in place of salt. Remember ingredients like stock, soy sauce and miso all contain hidden salt so go easy on them and choose lower/reduced salt versions if they are available.

How long does it take for your taste buds to adapt to less salt?

Every two weeks your taste buds regenerate so you will quickly get used to any taste changes from adding less salt to your food.

What do I need to look out for in the supermarket?

As most of the salt we eat comes from packaged foods, reducing the intake of these foods is an important step. 

However, there may be some items like bread that you still eat weekly. In this instance, it's important to check the food label and aim for the option that has the lowest amount of salt.

In New Zealand, salt is labelled as 'sodium' on the food label. For some international products, it will be labelled as salt and you can convert this to sodium by dividing it by 2.5. 

When you begin looking on a food label think to yourself 'LESS is BEST'. Choose the products which have the least amount of sodium per 100g.

Man reading label in supermarket

The following targets can be a good guide to know how high or low sodium can go:

  • high sodium/salt foods = >600mg sodium per 100g
  • medium sodium/salt foods = 120–600mg sodium per 100g
  • low sodium/salt foods = <120mg sodium per 100g

If you see items labelled with "low salt" or "reduced salt", this label means that the product will have 25% (one quarter) less salt in it compared to the same food of another brand. Remember, reduced salt may have 'less salt' but it doesn't necessarily mean 'low salt'.

The Heart Foundation aims to decrease salt in packaged foods that are commonly eaten and is actively working with food companies to reduce the salt in key products. There are many factors at play when reducing salt in packaged food, as salt affects the taste, texture, shelf-life and overall acceptance of the food. Over 300 tonnes of salt per annum has been removed from key food categories such as bread, breakfast cereals and processed meals. 
 

More about salt
Nickie Hursthouse, NZRD

Nickie Hursthouse, NZRD

National Nutrition Advisor

As a Registered Dietitian, I know that food gives us so much more than just nutrients. I am driven to simplify nutrition messages, educate on all aspects of food and support Kiwis to develop a love of food that helps them stay healthy throughout their life.