Salt, the forgotten killer
Published: 1 March 2017
In the age of sugar dominating news headlines - salt is now being described as the forgotten killer by many health organisations.
Salt, or sodium chloride, is commonly used to preserve and flavour foods, and is the main source of sodium in our diet. Many foods have salt added to them, even foods that don't necessarily taste salty.
How much sodium do I need a day?
A small amount of salt is important for good health as it helps to maintain the correct volume of circulating blood and tissue fluids in the body. However, most people consume much more sodium than they need for good health. Currently, New Zealanders consume around 9g of salt a day – around three times more sodium than they need for good health and well above the World Health Organisation population target of 5g a day.
Why is salt bad for me?
A high salt intake has proven links with high blood pressure which increases the risk of people developing heart disease – New Zealand’s single biggest killer. High salt intakes are also associated with other health conditions such as certain cancers and stroke.
Lurking in your food
The major source of salt in our diets is not what is added in our cooking or at the table – it is in the processed, manufactured food we buy.
It is estimated that a whopping 75% of our salt intake comes from processed foods high in sodium, which is typical of many western countries which have a high consumption of processed and prepared foods (2). In New Zealand bread is the major source, largely because of the volume we eat, and processed meats, sauces, and breakfast cereals are moderate sources.
The fact that processed foods are such a significant source of salt in our diets, highlights the important role food companies can play in reducing our salt intake.
Food industry targets at the heart of action on salt
This year marks an important milestone for the Heart Foundation and its work with food companies to reduce salt levels. Ten years ago, the Heart Foundation started working with food industry to set salt reduction targets for bread.
Following a successful pilot, targets were then expanded to a range of other food categories. A combination of industry targets and strong food company nutrition policies have meant sodium levels in bread are now 25% lower, some children’s breakfast cereals (e.g. cornflakes and rice bubble products) 33% lower and some processed meats, such as sausages, around 20% lower.
The cumulative effect in all categories with sodium targets means approximately 250 tonnes of salt has been removed from targeted products annually in New Zealand.
One of the significant achievements of this work is that the changes have gone on behind the scenes in a ‘health by stealth’ fashion. Shoppers have not detected the change and automatically get the benefit of less salt in their food without knowing.
How to lower salt intake
- While there is an important ongoing role of food companies to continue to reduce salt levels we also need to eat less highly processed food. Make vegetables and fruit the majority of your trolley, fridge and eating pattern. Have a look at our healthy heart visual food guide for more info.
- When choosing between similar packaged or processed foods – read the nutrition information and use the per 100g column to choose foods with low sodium levels. Less is best when it comes to salt (sodium), sugar and saturated fat.
- When cooking try not to add salt. Try using herbs, spices, vinegars, citrus, and chilli to add flavour and punch to dishes rather than adding extra salt.
- Gradually reduce your salt intake over time and your palate will adjust. Many people find they are able to pick up other flavours in the food more as they reduce the amount of salt they add.
- Take extra care with children’s foods, children need less, and a child’s preference for salt is a learned behaviour.
- Get kids in the kitchen – invest in their knowledge of using more fresh and less processed foods, what to do with various fruits and vegetables and cooking skills.
Ministry of Primary Industries. The impact of mandatory fortification of bread with iodine. Online: http://www.foodsafety.govt.nz/elibrary/industry/mandatory-fortification-bread-iodine.pdf
Slimani N, Deharveng G, Southgate DAT, et al. Contribution of highly industrially processed foods to the nutrient intakes and patterns of middle-aged populations in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2009 Nov;63 Suppl 4:S206-25.What is being done about sugar?Find out how to read food labels