Hidden death in a salt shaker

2013-08-19 00:00

YOU may be moving closer to the grave with every shake of the salt cellar, UKZN lecturer and dietician Suna Kassier warned at a talk recently.

Many of us use salt frequently; it’s the most popular flavour we use on our food without any thought or hesitation. It is always on the tables at restaurants, along with its less lethal partner, pepper.

Salt is a silent killer that causes high blood pressure, which leads to strokes, heart disease and diabetes complications, but unlike other dangers, it remains a quiet culprit. Salt is a combination of sodium and chloride, and it is the raised level of sodium in our bodies that is the cause for alarm.

Most tasty fast foods have high levels of salt in them and many of the pre-packed convenience foods that we have come to rely on as part of a modern way of life also have high levels of salt in them. All the accumulated sodium in our diet can be a huge cause for concern.

Kassier presented the facts about salt in a public talk given during UKZN’s Science Week. She said that salt was greatly valued in antiquity as a trade item as it was necessary in the preservation of food before refrigeration was invented.

Salt was included in the funeral offerings found in ancient Egyptian tombs from the third millennium BC, as were salted birds and salted fish. The Egyptians began exporting salted fish to the Phoenicians in 2 800 BC.

Salt is a chemical compound — sodium chloride (NaCl) — and although it is extremely useful, and our tastebuds have become accustomed to it, it is harmful to those who have a genetic predisposition towards high blood pressure.

Kassier said that lifestyle diseases have now overtaken infectious diseases as the leading causes of deaths. This means diabetes, heart disease, cancer and strokes are rising, and many of the factors contributing to the development of these diseases can be controlled by changing lifestyle, especially diet.

High blood pressure or hypertension is a causative factor in these lifestyle diseases and is known as the silent killer. In South Africa alone, 3,3 million people suffer from high blood pressure, and salt is a leading cause of high blood pressure. Other factors are obesity, smoking, stress, alcohol and a lack of exercise.

Kassier said that health campaigns to make the public aware of the dangers of salt have had minimal impact. “We are more worried about the salt that is hidden in the everyday food that people are eating. We need to make people aware that it is not just the salt they add to their food, but that everything they eat already has salt in it.”

The black and Indian populations have a genetic component that makes them more prone to hypertension, and they need to be aware that excessive salt intake can lead to hypertension, which in turn can cause diabetes and strokes.

Kassier said that processed foods often do not have labels that reflect their salt content and consumers are not sure how to interpret the ingredients. Kassier said: “If it says there is sodium in the food then there is salt. If the label says sodium-free, it means five milligrams per 100 g.”

As more people are turning to cooking and experimenting with culinary flavours, they may discover a range of salts on the market. These gourmet rock and sea salts have been popularised by TV chefs who sprinkle them liberally on their recipes. There are many claims by manufacturers declaring that their product is “natural”, and contains “essential minerals”, and offers a “tastier and healthier alternative” to table salt. But the truth is that most of these salts are just as dangerous as ordinary salt —with a different flavour. Garlic salt and celery salt are also popular alternatives to standard table salt. Companies and chefs often highlight the fact that sea salt has been used in a food, with the implication that it makes it a tastier and more natural product. Kassier said that no matter how expensive salt is, whether it comes in crystals or grains, from the sea or from the Himalayas, all salt has sodium as the main ingredient.

Worldwide, governments have lobbied for food manufacturers to use less salt in the manufacturing of food and they have passed legislation to force manufacturers to comply. The South African government has also passed legislation to this effect. In 2012, laws were gazetted to lower the sodium content in a range of foods from cereals to processed sausages. Manufacturers will have to comply with these new regulations by 2016 or 2018. But some of the sodium-level reductions are still frightening. Instant soup will be reduced to 5 500 mg of sodium per 100 g.

How much salt do you need?

It is recommended by the World Health Organisation that you limit your sodium intake to less than 2 300 mg a day — or 1 500 mg if you’re aged 51 or older, are black, or if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.

The average South African eats 3 400 mg of sodium a day.

Sodium found in a typical diet

The majority of sodium in the typical modern diet comes from processed and prepared foods. Processed foods include bread, prepared dinners such as pasta, meat and egg dishes, pizza, cold meat, bacon, cheese, soups and fast foods.

Kassier advised people to read food labels carefully and to use herbs to flavour food.

She said: “People are more aware of the danger of sugar these days, and yet salt is likely to cause similar problems … we should be aiming towards … people choosing salt-free meals.”

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