Spotlight on salt

What is salt?

Salt is the white crystal we sprinkled on our food or in our cooking. Salt is a chemical made up of sodium and chlorine. It is the sodium in salt which is physiologically active in the body.

What does salt do?

Salt enters the body in the food we eat. Salt (sodium chloride) is water soluble and splits into sodium and chlorine in the body. The sodium helps to regulate the body’s water balance which is tightly controlled by the kidneys. If there is too much sodium in the body the kidneys can get rid of it in urine. If there is too little sodium in the body, the kidneys can recycle it by absorbing sodium from the blood. Sodium is also required for the absorption of certain nutrients and water from the gut.

Salt or sodium?

Some food labels only state the sodium content of food. Don't confuse salt and sodium figures. To convert sodium to salt, you need to multiply the sodium amount by 2.5. For example, 1g of sodium per 100g is 2.5 grams of salt per 100g.

How much do we need?

Adults should eat no more than 6g of salt a day (2.4g sodium) – that's around 1 teaspoon. The maximum amount of salt children should have depends on their age:

  • 1 to 3 years – 2g salt a day (0.8g sodium) 
  • 4 to 6 years – 3g salt a day (1.2g sodium) 
  • 7 to 10 years – 5g salt a day (2g sodium) 
  • 11 years and over – 6g salt a day (2.4g sodium)

Babies under one year shouldn't eat much salt, because their kidneys are not fully developed to process it. They should have less than 1g of salt a day.

Does salt do us any harm?

A diet high in salt can affect your health in several ways. It can raise blood pressure, which can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. High blood pressure often has no symptoms, and many people who have high blood pressure don't know it.

High salt intake is also linked to conditions including:

  • kidney problems and kidney stones
  • oedema (fluid retention)
  • osteoporosis

Salt in food.

Vegetables and fruits contain very low amounts of naturally occurring sodium. Processed foods can contain high amounts of sodium as it is used to enhance the flavour of food and as a preservative.

Foods high in salt

Foods that significantly contribute to high levels of sodium in your diet include: 

  1. Biscuits, muffins, cakes, pizza, burgers, pasta and noodle dishes,
  2. Meat, poultry and related products, including processed meats and sausages,
  3. Bread, breakfast foods and other products made from cereals and grains 

Reducing salt in your diet

To reduce sodium in your diet, eat more unprocessed food including:

  1. Vegetables and legumes / beans
  2. Fruit
  3. Milk and milk alternatives, such as Oat Drink, yoghurt,
  4. Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds
  5. Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties

Check salt on labels

Most pre-packed foods have a nutrition label on the back or side of the packaging. This makes it a lot easier to check the salt content of food. Check the label for the salt content in the everyday foods you buy, and choose lower-salt options.

Many foods also have colour-coded nutrition information on the front of the package to show whether the salt content is:

  • green (low) 
  • amber (medium) 
  • red (high) 

Try to eat high-salt foods only occasionally, or in small amounts, and aim to mainly eat foods that are green or amber.

For more information on lowering the salt in your diet

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