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Secret sodium

Reducing salt levels is considered essential for a healthier diet — but a new survey suggests staple products are ramping up our intake on the sly. Better Health looks at the culprits

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Eating salt with food has always been central to our experience. As the ancient Roman statesman Cicero famously said: “Trust no one unless you have eaten much salt with him.”

It is a mineral we use to flavour most of our meals and preserve everything from vegetables to meat — without it life would be pretty bland. 

“Frozen food has to contain a lot of sodium as it is a preservative, so this is one group of products to definitely watch.”
-Lubna Abdussalam Dhalani, Dietician at Aster Clinic, AJMC
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However, modern food production means our intake is often much higher than is good for us, and even the choices we think are healthy when trawling the supermarket aisles could be deceptive.

A good example is bread, that most global of staples. A new survey by World Action on Salt and Health (Wash), based at Queen Mary University of London, has revealed the shocking levels of salt present in various bread products.

Wash surveyed more than 2,000 white, wholemeal, mixed grain and flatbreads from 32 countries and regions, including over 500 products from Canada collected by Professor Mary L’Abbe’s lab at the University of Toronto.

Researchers found that the saltiest bread in the survey — Rosemary Foccacia by ACE Bakery, available in Canada — had a shocking 2.65g of salt (1,060mg sodium) per 100g, which is saltier than seawater. In fact, 73 per cent of Canadian breads exceeded Health Canada’s 2016 targets for sodium in bread products and 21 per cent were above recommended maximum levels.

At the same time, more than 44 per cent of white breads included in the Wash survey had more salt than the UK’s maximum salt target. 

“This survey clearly demonstrates the progress still to be made to lower salt intake by 30 per cent by 2025, in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations,” said Mhairi Brown, Nutritionist at Wash, in the report. 

“Bread is an essential staple food in many countries but is still a key source of salt in our diets due to the frequency with which we eat bread. Globally we must do more to reduce salt intake, and a simple way to do this is to lower salt in our staple foods.”

It is important to note that the words salt and sodium are often used interchangeably but aren’t exactly the same thing. 

Sodium is a mineral that occurs naturally in foods or is added during manufacturing, or both. Naturally occurring sodium is found in foods such as celery, beets and milk. Packaged and prepared foods can be big sodium culprits. More than 75 per cent of the sodium we eat comes from processed foods such as canned soups, lunch meats and frozen dinners.

Table salt is a combination of sodium and chloride. By weight, it is approximately 40 per cent sodium and 60 per cent chloride. About 90 per cent of the sodium we eat is in the form of sodium chloride. 

When it comes to hitting the supermarkets, Lubna Abdussalam Dhalani, Dietician at Aster Clinic, AJMC in Dubai, says people need to be aware that many of the products they pick up may be much higher in sodium and salt than they expect. 

“Bread is often considered healthier if you buy wholemeal or brown bread, but there is often still a lot of sodium added to this staple. 

“The same goes for nuts — which people are told again and again are good for them — but what they actually pick up off the shelf are usually nuts with lots of salt added. Even meat is something people should be thinking about. Packaged meat, cured meat, meat pre-prepared for barbecues and so on all have very high levels of added sodium. People often just don’t think about it.”

Dhalani adds that a high-salt diet is one of the major risk factors in the development of hypertension. Indeed, studies have confirmed the association of sodium intake with high blood pressure levels. 

Although genetic factors are known to be very important, in general everyone should be reading labels on packaged foods, explains Dhalani.

“Frozen food has to contain a lot of sodium as it is a preservative, so this is one group of products to definitely watch. People should think about everything, including cheese and canned food, even milk and drinks such as laban are high in sodium.”

She says a common mistake is to prepare a healthy meal such as a salad, then ramp up the salt levels by pouring pre-prepared dressings all over it.

“Moderation in everything is key. People need to look at their food preparation habits. At the end of the day, cooking fresh produce from scratch at home is the best way to control sodium and salt levels.” 

Reports indicate people who cook properly at home tend to have healthier eating patterns, spend less on takeaway and have indicators of better health.

Experts advise caution about sea or rock salt, which is often seen as healthier. Despite the different names, rock and table salt are the same thing, only in slightly different physical forms. 

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