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The lowdown on salt

When it comes to salt, it's a bit of a catch-22 situation: while our bodies need it, there's a thin line between too little and too much. Here's what you need to know.

One small thing: Ditch the salt! Instead, use lemon juice, infused oils, garlic, ginger and fresh herbs to make foods tastier.

How often do you ask someone to pass the salt at the dinner table? Probably more often than you realise – and this is a stark reminder that we're eating far more of this seemingly innocuous seasoning than we should.

And while salt does good things for our bodies – maintaining cell health, keeping our muscles and nerves functioning well, and ensuring that our fluid, electrolyte and pH levels are well balanced – the average tendency in the Western world of consuming 10-12g of table salt daily (double the World Health Organization's recommendation, and more than five times our actual physiological requirement) is wreaking havoc with our health.

What exactly is salt?

Salt is also known as sodium chloride – 5g of table salt contains about 2 300mg of sodium. It's the sodium in salt that's the main health concern, with high blood pressure, stroke and kidney disease all being associated with an excessive intake, says Irene Labuschagne, principle dietitian at the Nutrition Information Centre University of Stellenbosch (NICUS).

"And don't be fooled by the different types of salt on offer either – whether it's rock salt, sea salt, Himalayan or organic," adds Labuschagne. "Despite being produced in different ways and containing varying amounts of other trace minerals, they all have one thing in common: sodium."

Regardless of the type of salt, it's bound to contribute sodium to your diet, and too much sodium puts you at risk of developing serious diseases. The link between salt and high blood pressure is well documented and accepted as medical fact, says Labuschagne.

"What is less widely known," she explains, "is that many foods in South Africa contain hidden salt or sodium. Bread is the largest contributor of salt to the diet, followed closely by margarine, butter spreads, stock cubes, soup powders, breakfast cereals and most savoury snacks."

How to reduce your salt intake

Johannesburg-based dietitian Celynn Erasmus offers these tips to help decrease your daily sodium intake:

  • Potassium and magnesium both help maintain normal blood pressure by blunting the effect of sodium, so eat more of these foods: apricots, spinach, green salad leaves, broccoli, green beans, cabbage, avocado, apples, bananas, figs, sweet potatoes, yoghurt, tomato purée, lentils, white beans, split peas, Brazil nuts and almonds.
  • Taste your food before adding salt.
  • Avoid double trouble by using little or no salt during cooking. Rather flavour meals with spices, herbs or infused oils.
  • Eating in saves money and will also reduce your salt intake. A single fast-food meal can double the recommended daily salt intake for an adult.
  • Always read food labels, as a great deal of salt is hidden in foods that don't taste salty. Stick to less than 300mg sodium per snack and less than 600mg sodium per meal.
Make salt-wise decisions

Always read the nutritional information table on food labels to check for ingredients such as salt, sodium, monosodium glutamate (MSG) or any sodium-containing additive – as well as how many milligrams of sodium (Na) the food item contains, says Labuschagne. Multiply this number by 2,5 to calculate the amount of salt in milligrams (or divide by 1 000 to get the salt value in grams).

Aim for a total intake of less than 5g of salt (2 300mg sodium) per day and use the following guideline as a rule:

  • Try to avoid foods containing more than 1.3g of salt (600mg sodium) per 100g as these are high in salt.
  • Opt for foods with less than 0.3g of salt (120mg sodium), as these are low in salt.
  • Look for the Heart Mark to identify foods that are lower in salt content.

If you have a question for our dietitians, click here, or to find a dietitian in your area, visit adsa.org.za. To get in touch with us, email healthhotline@pnp.co.za.