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Salt: The slow killer

By in Education, Research, Policy on March 22, 2016

South Africans at risk of health complications from excessive salt consumption

Most of us have heard about the dangers associated with consuming too much salt. However, for all too many South Africans the message does not really seem to have sunk in yet. Perhaps this is not surprising as we use salt as a food additive to improve flavour and feel no worse physically for having used it.

“The fact is that our bodies need some salt in order to function properly, and for some individuals high levels of salt consumption does not necessarily result in a health problem,” says Dr Anchen Laubscher, medical director at Netcare, who was speaking during World Salt Awareness Week. “However, studies suggest that the majority of us, nearly 70 percent, are at risk of developing health problems related to the excessive consumption of salt.”

“Salt causes the body to retain more water, potentially raising blood pressure and placing strain on the kidneys, arteries, heart and other vital organs. For many individuals, high levels of salt in their diet can substantially increase the risk of developing high blood pressure [hypertension] which in turn can lead to life threatening illnesses such as heart disease or a stroke. These are leading causes of death and disability in South Africa,” Dr Laubscher points out.

“One of the problems is that many of us are not aware just how much salt we are consuming on a daily basis. This is because, unbeknown to us, many of the foods we purchase already contain high levels of sodium. Often we add more salt to our food before eating it. High levels of salt are particularly evident in processed foods, pre-packaged foods and takeaways. Even some breads contain a lot of salt.”

Dr Laubscher says that the net result of all of this is that many South Africans are consuming up to 40 grams a day of this potentially hazardous substance. This is eight times the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation of five grams, or one teaspoon, a day.

The South African Department of Health is so concerned about the damaging impact that sodium is having on the health of our population that it has introduced legislation to ensure that food manufacturers reduce the amount of sodium in their products. Food manufacturers have until June 2016 to comply with the first set of regulations and many have already taken the necessary steps to reduce the sodium in their products.

“Our country has one of the highest rates of hypertension and heart disease in the world, and Netcare supports efforts to assist in combatting serious health challenges such as these,” emphasises Dr Laubscher. “We therefore regard it as absolutely essential to use events such as World Salt Awareness Week to improve awareness of the benefits of adopting a healthier lifestyle and improving our diets.”

How do we reduce our salt intake?

Dr Laubscher says that there are a number of ways to do reduce salt intake, including reducing the amount of fast and processed foods we eat and by studying the nutrition labels on food packaging to assess the sodium content. Food that contains 0.3 grams per 100 grams of salt can be considered as low in sodium.

“Most of us get our daily sodium requirements, and often more than is healthy, from our food and do not need to add more. If you are in the habit of adding salt to your cooking and when eating your food, try adding less and less over a period of time until you have substantially reduced or stopped using it altogether. Salt can be rather ‘addictive’ and actually tends to overwhelm foods’ natural flavours and also other spice flavours. You may be pleasantly surprised at how you come to enjoy a salt-free lifestyle.”

Dr Laubscher provides the following tips for achieving a salt-free lifestyle:

  • Try to avoid adding extra salt when cooking and use herbs and spices to flavour your food instead.
  • When shopping, check the nutrition labels on food packaging to assist you in making more informed choices.
  • Avoid foods that are high in sodium. These may include fast foods; certain pre-packed, processed and tinned foods; bacon; salted fish; sauces; chips, salted snacks and salted nuts.
  • Avoid adding stock cubes and dressings with a high sodium content to meals.
  • Be aware that certain makes of breads and bread products contain high levels of salt. Check labels and ask bakers how much salt they use.
  • Eat plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit, lean meats, unsalted fish and raw nuts.