We are continually being told that too much salt in our diets is bad for us. But exactly how much salt is too much? And are all types of salt equally unhealthy? Bernice Hurst has the answers.
As part of our interminable quest to live longer and live smarter, we inevitably find reasons why foods and ingredients that taste good are harmful if taken to excess. High on this list is salt, and its chief constituent, sodium. For all that it is “natural”, having been rescued from the oceans themselves and evaporated or purified or even smoked to extract maximum flavour and strength, for all its worth as a flavouring and a preservative, the fact remains that, no matter how you try to spin it, too much salt is widely acknowledged as A BAD THING.
However much salt we eat by adding it to our food when cooking and/or serving has to be (literally) weighed alongside the amount already inserted by either Mother Nature or the manufacturers from whom we purchase our meal components.
Susan Feldman, technical director of the Salt Institute, isn’t convinced that many take the trouble, however. “We have found that most consumers don’t bother to work out their sums. They usually check labels and aim for foods that claim they are low in sodium,” she says.
Western society’s increasing consumption of processed foods has drastically increased our salt intake and correspondingly increased our propensity to develop illnesses that cost vast sums in health care and absenteeism. As a result, we are urged to read the small print and try to create a balance, reducing what we voluntarily add to compensate for what is being supplied surreptitiously.
When viewed rationally, it’s quite easy to see the convergence of manufacturers’, and consumers’, fondness for salt. It enhances flavour, making us want to buy and eat more. And it preserves, simultaneously increasing shelf life and profits.
Trying to reduce salt intake by reading labels that itemise sodium content is not entirely helpful. In fact, sodium is a component of salt, which is made up of 40% sodium and 60% chloride. The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) recommended consumption of salt is less than 6g per day for an adult; this means 2.5g of sodium. The American Institute of Medicine issued amended guidelines in February 2004, advising adults to restrict their intake to 1,500 mg of sodium with those over 50 eating less (and those over 70 less still).
Calculating the sodium content of salt, particularly when standing in the supermarket reading the small print on a label, is frustrating and confusing. The Food Commission in the UK suggests multiplying sodium content by 2.5 to measure how much salt is contained in the product. This, of course, is further complicated by working out how much is in the package vs how much is in “a portion” (and the size of the portion) or in 100g (which may or may not constitute “a portion”). Try doing that when you are short on time or the kids are running amok.
An easier rule of thumb, suggested by the FSA, is that 0.5g or more sodium is a lot whereas 0.1g is a little. The US Food & Drug Agency (FDA) goes further, defining less than 5mg sodium per serving as sodium free, 35mg or less as very low, and 140mg or less as low. They then change terminology and define reduced sodium as 25% less than the original item and light in sodium as 50% less than the original item, possibly leaving many consumers none the wiser and wondering whether to multiply or divide by 1000 when converting mg to g.
Don’t forget the toothpaste
All sorts of ingredients, including those used if healthy home baking replaces packaged cakes, biscuits and bread, contain levels of sodium that should be included in our daily calculations. Apparently even toothpaste containing baking soda increases our daily consumption, even if we don’t swallow. Now there’s something not a lot of people know. So it’s back to reading – and understanding – labels, dividing total content into the amount we might use to bake a cake or clean our teeth and hoping that concerned and considerate manufacturers disclose the information we want in a friendly and understandable manner.
There is no apparent difference between the salt that we can buy in our supermarkets and that used by manufacturers. Nor is there much difference, nutritionally, if we opt for sea salt. None of the official guidelines distinguish between table and sea salt although individual quantities vary according to age and personal health issues. All we really need to know is that, officially, in health terms, salt is salt and we should eat less of it. But are there, in fact, any significant differences in taste, texture or constitution?
Table salt is fine textured and pours easily, primarily because it contains anti-caking agents. The famous Morton’s Salt slogan, used since early in the 20th century, epitomises the value of processing: “when it rains, it pours”.
Table salt may, or may not, also have additives such as calcium or iodine. The latter, labelled iodised salt, provides traces of an element essential to good health. But then, the unique selling point of most sea salts is that it contains no artificial additives and retains trace elements of minerals that we all need to maintain good health. The implication is that machine processing and refining remove traces, which then have to be put back in. Sound familiar?
Purveyors of sea salt also pride themselves on its crystalline nature, frequently handled by people rather than machines to preserve its unique crunchiness. Britain’s perennially popular television cook, Delia Smith, sent hordes of viewers rushing to clear supermarket shelves of her favourite salt. Its lack of chemicals and “absolutely pure taste of the sea…is less sharp and somehow saltier (so you need to use less)”, she expounded.
Sea salt’s essential flavour, and its ability to further enhance the flavour of the food on which it is sprinkled, is also praised by Colman Andrews of Salt Traders who seeks and sells products from as far afield as Hawaii and South Africa. Derived from mountains and seas, salt marshes and lava rocks, Andrews has turned his personal hobby into a crusade and a business opportunity. Delia’s favourite is just one part of his extensive product range.
One final thing that not everyone realises is that anticipated reductions in obesity, high blood pressure, strokes, heart disease and other illness refer to the general population. There is no guarantee that any individual changing their diet will benefit. They may or then again, they may not. But any attempt to live longer will fail if we don’t at least make the effort to live smarter.