The truth about salt

Excessive salt consumption has long been a problem in the modern Western diet. It is generally understood that it leads to high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes and fluid retention. Did you know, though, that excessive salt intake may also worsen the symptoms of asthma and migraine?

Although no conclusion has been reached yet on why too much salt might be bad for asthma sufferers, some research has found that an increased amount of salt could make the bronchi (breathing tubes of the lungs) more sensitive to the chemical histamine that triggers the tubes to constrict in asthma.

Salt could also be a factor that causes migraine. Salt causes water retention that results in increased blood pressure and, since a migraine is a vascular headache that is influenced by blood pressure, salt could be a migraine trigger.

How we can cut down
If prepared foods contain such high levels of salt, then obviously it's not enough to merely cut down on the amounts we use in cooking and at the table. That's why it's important to read food labels and to know what foods are high and low in.

However, things can get a bit fuzzy when it comes to food labelling. The local requirement is that the ingredients be listed in descending order of mass – but this applies only to the main ingredients of the food.

Therefore, if salt is a main ingredient, a general guideline would be to check where salt is placed on the list. The smaller the amount of salt used, the further down the list it will be. Salt is one additive that has to be identified by name, though not necessarily by quantity. (Other additives that must be identified include tartrazine and monosodium glutamate.)A guideline is to check on the label for salt and if you are going to eat a product with salt in it, to cut down on your salt intake for the rest of the day.

Luckily, there is some good news: according to the new food-labelling laws, products claiming to be low in sodium (salt) must state the specific amount, says Antoinette Booyzen, assistant director of the Regulatory Nutrition Directorate: Food Control, of the Department of Health.

What the labels mean

  • Low in sodium: this label applies only when a product does not contain more than 120mg sodium per 100g.
  • Very low in sodium: this label applies only when a product does not contain more than 40mg sodium per 100g.
  • Sodium free: this label applies only when a product does not contain more than 5mg sodium per 100g.

    Foods with a high salt content

  • Canned soups, juices, vegetables
  • Cereals
  • Cheese
  • Packet soups and sauces
  • Soya sauce, Worcestershire sauce
  • Olives and pickles
  • Processed meats
  • Prepared salad dressings
  • Salted nuts
  • Smoked fish and meat
  • Most snack foods: potato crisps, corn chips, cheese snacks, pretzels
  • Table salt
  • Stock cubes
  • Fish paste

    Foods low in salt

  • Fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Fresh fish and meat, cooked at home
  • Oats Pasta Rice
  • Packaged foods labelled 'low-salt', 'salt-free' and 'unsalted'
  • Home-made salad dressings
  • Herbs, garlic, lemon juice
  • Milk, yoghurt, plain cottage cheese

    Beware: reduced salt intake is not for everyone
    There are some medical conditions for which the reduction of salt is not advisable. People suffering from any medical condition should check with their doctor before making dietary changes.

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