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Is too much salt bad for you?

Too much salt is bad for your health. Excess salt can cause health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, and more.

Too much salt can cause health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease and more. Rachael Hannan investigates the numerous health dangers of excessive salt in our diets.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has been advertising the fact that too much salt is bad for your heart with the help of an apt animated character, Sid the Slug; apt because a slug is a perfect metaphor to explain how too much salt affects the body.

Sprinkle salt on a slug and it will shrivel up and die because the salt has dehydrated it, and that is exactly what salt does to the human body.

Eating Too Much Salt: Why is Salt Unhealthy?

Too much salt causes ’vasoconstriction’ of the blood vessels, which, to you and me, means they shrink in size or constrict because the salt has dehydrated the cells, forcing water out of them and making them narrower.

It’s this shrinking or tightening of the blood vessels that pose health risks. When blood vessels become narrower, the heart has to work harder to force the blood around the body and this increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes. If you already have high blood pressure or coronary heart disease (when the arteries become narrowed because fatty deposits have formed on the inside wall of the blood vessels), then you are adding to your risk of having a stroke or heart attack by eating excessive salt.

About Salt: How Much Salt Should I Eat?

According to the FSA, the recommended daily quantity of salt is 6g per adult and child over the age of 14. However, less is best, so aim to eat between 4-5g a day, which is around 1 teaspoon of salt.

A 1 or 2g difference might not sound like much, but even this tiny quantity has an effect on the body. An international study by INTERSALT, published in the British Medical Journal, measured the salt intake of 10,000 people aged 55+ in 32 countries. They found that a difference of only 6g of salt a day significantly reduced the subject’s blood pressure from 10mm Hg to 5mm Hg. They also found that an extra 6g of salt a day increased the risk of heart disease by 21% and stroke by 34%.

Eating Too Much Salt: Does Salt Have Health Benefits?

It’s important to note at this point that the body does need a certain quantity of salt to function at its optimum.

Human blood contains 0.9% salt; it protects against hyperthermia and is required by every cell to maintain the correct fluid balance. This is why the Salt Manufacturers Association is refuting the health claims of the FSA and High Blood Pressure Association, saying that salt is necessary for good health.

However, they do not take into account the fact that most people consume more than enough salt easily without adding any salt to their food at all because salt is already in their food, often disguised.

Hidden Salt Danger: What Foods Are High in Salt?

If you do not add any salt to your food, you will still exceed the recommended 5-6g because of what is often called the ’hidden’ salt in our food, added by manufacturers.

The average person consumes 12g of salt a day and it’s this hidden salt that is to blame.

All those pre-packed sauces, cereals, crisps, tinned vegetables, processed cheeses (Dairylea triangles, cheese squares, etc.), processed meats (pies, burgers, nuggets, ham, salami, bacon, sausages, sausage rolls) and ready meals are laden with salt.

Even ’healthy’ food contains excessive quantities of salt, and fresh soups and cereals are among the worst culprits. To put the problem in perspective, consider this: there is more salt in a bowl of cornflakes than there is in an equal-sized bowl of Atlantic seawater. This is a frightening thought.

If you do enjoy cereals, choose the brands that clearly state on the packaging that they have no added salt, such as Shreddies, Shredded Wheat, and Weetabix. Whenever possible, always make fresh soup yourself.

Children are particularly susceptible to eating large quantities of salt. According to information from BUPA, One Harvest Ham Dairylea Lunchable has 2.75g salt – 37% more than the recommended daily salt level for children aged 1-6 years.

One small can of Heinz Teletubbies pasta shapes and sausages contains 2.5g salt – 25% more than the recommended level. A Burger King children’s meal (cheeseburger, small fries and small cola) contains 3.3g salt – 65 per cent more than the maximum daily intake.

The only way to avoid ’hidden’ salt is to cook meals yourself from fresh ingredients so you know exactly what you are eating and learn to read food nutritional labels.

How to Read Food Labels: Understanding Salt

To avoid salt, it is essential to get used to reading the nutritional information on the food you buy. The terms salt and sodium are used interchangeably on the nutritional information on food packaging, but they are not exactly the same.

The chemical name for salt is sodium chloride, and that is because salt is made up of 40% sodium and 60% chloride.

When reading food packaging, if the label specifies the amount of sodium in the product, then you must multiply the figure by 2.5. So if a food says it contains 1.2g of sodium per 100g, which is roughly 3g of salt per 100g, which is a lot of salt.

If the label lists salt instead of sodium, then take this reading at face value.

However, do watch out for the measurements. Some will list the salt quantity in mg, others in g. There are 1000mg in 1 gram, so if there are 326mg of salt in 100g of product, there is essentially 0.326g of salt per 100g.

Don’t let it be too confusing. If you are unsure, return the product and buy something else. Use the calculator facility on your mobile phone to convert the sodium quantity into salt, and try to cook fresh food rather than relying on pre-packed sauces and other food stuff.