A salty affair - cut salt and live longer

National Salt Awareness Week has come and gone. The salt shaker is still your favourite kitchen utensil and life goes on. Or does it?

For many centuries salt was a very rare commodity, a luxury only the very rich and noble could afford.  Nowadays, salt is cheap and is added to almost every packaged food you can find on the supermarket shelf. Salt is everywhere, even in foods you'd never expect!

The result is that most of us consume more than double the daily recommended amount of salt. According to the World Health Organisation we should aim for 5g (about one teaspoon a day), but most adults following a typical Western diet end up consuming about 9 to 12g a day. This high salt-intake is directly reflected in the high prevalence of serious lifestyle diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. Too much salt even affects yourbone health as it may decrease the amount of calcium your bones absorb.

Alarming new research has shown that it takes just half an hour for one salty meal to significantly impair the arteries' ability to pump blood around the body. Blood flow becomes temporarily more restricted for between 30 minutes and an hour after the food has been consumed. According to the research team, this kind of damage to the blood flow is a very early sign of heart disease. That's one salty meal, just imagine what your arteries and your general cardiovascular health will look like after consuming 9 to 12g of salt every day of the year.

I like to think of myself as someone who consumes little salt. I've never liked salty foods, they just make me feel bloated and thirsty, so I tend to avoid salty processed meats and flavour my foods with herbs and spices. (Don't worry, my weakness is a sweet tooth – but that's a story for another day.)

So, imagine how miffed I was, when I discovered how much salt there's hidden in foods. It's even in sweet foods like hot chocolate powder – now who would have guessed that? Salt has become the new Trojan horse of health. Check out your favourite marshmallow Easter eggs (yup, I've already succumbed to those long before Easter) - most of them also contain salt.

Even foods that claim to be "low-sodium" often tell a whole different story when you search the nutrition label for the sodium content. Salt is a concept we can understand, but what exactly is sodium? If you think salt equals sodium, you're wrong. Salt actually contains 40% of sodium. Also known as sodium chloride, it is a chemical compound made up of the minerals sodium (Na) and chlorine (CI).

Even though it may be unintentional, food companies are confusing consumers: they give us the nutritional information, but we don't know how to interpret it and, subsequently, we come to the wrong conclusions. If a food is said to have 394mg of sodium (the equivalent of 1 gram salt), it sounds far less than 1 000mg of salt. But if you think about it, 1 000mg or 1g of salt is a huge chunk of your daily allowance if you can only consume 5g per day. You can calculate any food's salt content by multiplying the sodium value by 2.5.

Since I discovered this handy little formula, I've had a field day checking out the labels of my favourite foods and discovering how much salt I have been consuming without even knowing. Save this easy formula on your phone and try it next time you go shopping for groceries.

Salt Awareness Week may come only once a year, but the effects of too much salt are too important to ignore the other 51 weeks of the year. Have a look at our slideshow of Ten salty food culprits. Cutting your salt-intake could add years to your life.

(Birgit Ottermann, Health24, Nutrition Newsletter, March 2011)

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