How salt can be a killer

Eating too much salt can be a danger to your health, but how can you reduce your salt intake to lead a healthier life? Angelique Ruzicka investigates.

Salt is a common thing to see on tables across South Africa and generally diners don’t think twice about the health risks when they say “Pass me the salt, please”. However, habitually salting food can increase your risk of developing chronic heartburn, stomach cancer, stroke, osteoporosis, along with kidney and heart failure by up to a fatal 50%. This warning comes in the wake of National Salt Awareness Week (16 – 22 March 2015).

According to the Salt Watch, a body created in 2013 to highlight the health risks of salt, salt in high concentrations can act as an irritant/inflammatory agent of the stomach lining, which can increase the risk of infections by the Helicobacter Pylori bacteria that causes both stomach ulcers and stomach cancer. Salt has also been found to increase the growth and action of Helicobacter Pylori, thus increasing the risk of cancer.

Salt Watch also points out that salt intake can influence the amount of calcium passed out in the urine and the amount of calcium lost from bones. So if you consume a lot of salt it may lead to weakening of the bones and an increased risk of osteoporosis.

High salt intake has also been linked with kidney stones and can increase the amount of protein in the urine, which is a major risk factor in the decline of kidney function. Finally, if you are asthma sufferer your symptoms could be made worse if you eat a lot of salt.

How much salt can you have?
With all these dangers how much salt is too much? Mariska van Aswegen, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics says: “According to experts, our salt consumption could be as high as 40g a day, which is way above the World Health Organisation’s recommended intake of less than 5g a day. And when it comes to our discretionary salt consumption, which is the amount of salt we add to food ourselves, it is as high as 40% a day. In most other Westernised countries, the discretionary use of salt is in the region of 15%.”

Globally accepted guidelines state that food with more than 600mg of sodium per 100g can be considered unhealthy. In South Africa, many products exceed this limit, but government has already taken a legislative stance to reduce the quantity of sodium in food.

In March 2013, South Africa’s Minister of Health signed legislation to reduce salt levels in certain foodstuffs, limiting salt levels in bread, breakfast cereals, margarines and fat spreads, potato crisps, ready-to-eat snacks, processed meats and raw-processed meat sausages, dry soup, gravy powders, stock cubes and dry savoury powder for instant noodles.

However, we aren’t benefiting from the new laws just yet. The law requires that these products meet the sodium targets as legislated by June 2016, with a further reduction required by June 2019.

Van Aswegen highlights that South Africa is the first country to globally legislate salt levels as a serious measure to reduce specifically cardiovascular related deaths. “It’s high time that South Africans wake up to the dangers of excess salt consumption and make healthy eating part of a healthy lifestyle. More than 80% of cardiovascular diseases can be prevented if we consume less salt,” says van Aswegen.

Which foods have the highest salt content?
According to Salt Watch more than half (55%) of the salt South Africans eat comes from processed foods, which contain hidden salts (added during the manufacturing process).

The top contributors to daily salt intake include:

• All types of bread. Previous studies have shown that South African bread is among the saltiest in the world,
• Processed meat products,
• Soup/gravy powder contributes up to 17% of sodium intake,
• Meat and vegetable extracts,
• Hard/block margarine contributes up to 13% of sodium intake,
• Savoury snacks (such as crisps),
• Breakfast cereals, and
• Indian pickles (atchaar) can contribute more than five percent of sodium intake in the Indian population.

How to reduce your salt intake
But how can you go about ensuring that you reduce the amount of salt you consume every day? Here are a few tips:

1. Read the food labels and study the salt content. Salt Watch recommends that you eat less of a food if the word salt or any word with ‘sodium’ is listed in the first three or so ingredients. Watch out for words such as sodium chloride or NaCI, monosodium glutamate (MSG), baking soda or baking powder (sodium bicarbonate) or any compound with the word sodium in it.
2. Check the nutritional information table to find out what amount of sodium the food contains.
3. Choose foods with the Heart Mark as these products have less salt compared to others.
4. Try eating more fresh foods as opposed to processed foods.
5. Prepare and eat ore unprocessed and home cooked meals. Pharma Dynamics has launched several resources, such as the popular Cooking from the Heart cookbook series, which comprise of more than 100 flavourful breakfast, lunch, snack and dessert recipes, which are low in salt and sugar and have all been given the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA’s stamp of approval. Access Cooking from the Heart recipes for free via www.cookingfromtheheart.co.za.
6. Use less tomato sauce, mustard, soya sauce, pickles, olives, gravy powders, sauces, salad dressings as these tend to be high in salt.
7. Cut down on cured, smoked and deli meats. Replace high salt processed meats like polony and Vienna’s with lean meat or fish.
8. Keep healthy snacks like fruit or unsalted nuts within reach if you are peckish often.
9. Salt Watch recommends you pack your lunch with lower salt alternatives such as fruit, mixed fruit salad, yoghurt, unsalted nuts, dried fruit, vegetable sticks with yoghurt based dip or cottage cheese, chicken or tuna salad (instead of ham or other processed meats), whole-wheat pasta salad (instead of instant noodles), and boiled egg with salad.
10. Finally, use Salt Watch’s nutritional information table below to guide you on which foods have high and low salt content:

Saltwatch table