Shaking Up Our Salt Habit: Strategies for a Healthier Diet

World Salt Awareness Week (20-26 May) is here, reminding us that we are already eating too much salt.

According to the British Heart Foundation, the average daily intake is a staggering 8.4 grams — 40% more than the UK’s recommended limit of 6 grams and 70% above the World Health Organization’s guideline of 5 grams.

Habitually adding salt to foods was linked to a reduction in life expectancy by 1.50 years for women and 2.28 years for men at age 50.

Do we consume all this salt simply because we're liberal with the shaker?

Not quite. Over three-quarters of the salt we consume is already added to the ingredients we purchase (including self-raising flour, sauces, buttery spreads, cheese, salad dressings, canned vegetables, preserves, pickles, olives, and cured meats), as well as to commercial foods like bread, yoghurt, and different kinds of plant milk.

And because of our inherited genes, some of us are even more sensitive to the detrimental effects of salt than others.

Did you know? Salt is one of the most abundant minerals on Earth, making it inexpensive. It has been used extensively in food seasoning, cooking, and preservation for thousands of years. Before most British families owned a refrigerator by the end of the 1970s, salt was the primary method used to prevent food spoilage.

Let's Understand Salt and Sodium: Limits, Alternatives, and Risks

  • What’s the sodium in salt? Sodium is a soft, silvery-white metal, and an essential nutrient we all need. It helps us stay hydrated, have a properly functioning brain, contract our muscles, and transport nutrients into our cells. And pure salt is about 40% sodium by weight while the rest is chloride.
  • How much salt is too much? 6 grams is the UK daily intake limit. That’s about 1 level teaspoon, not heaped, for the whole day! But remember, this is a limit, not an aspirational target.
  • What about the sodium in less refined salts like pink, black, rock, crystal or flaky salt? It’s similar to traditional table salt so they can still put us at higher risk for heart/vascular conditions if consumed in excess.
  • How about lower-salt alternatives? They aren’t perfect either because they have a lot of potassium and this can be risky for those with an existing condition that makes them more vulnerable to this mineral, like kidney disease, where the body’s ability to manage potassium levels is impaired.
  • How to control salt consumption? With just 1 pinch less per day and by buying lower-salt foods or ingredients, we may be able to reduce our intake to meet the official limit.

    A healthier side of salt?

    While those of us involved in nutrition rarely praise salt, its ability to enhance the flavours of vegetables and other plant foods can actually encourage us to eat more of these nutrient-rich items. By making vegetables tastier, salt can help us increase our intake of essential vitamins, minerals, beneficial phytochemicals, and fibre – all contributing to a healthier diet.

    Salt is also important for sports performance. The ACSM recommends a sodium intake of 300–600 mg/h (1.7–2.9 g of salt) during prolonged exercise.

    Although we need sodium for survival, it’s important to consume it in moderation since excessive intake can lead to health issues such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, vascular dementia, and stroke.

    Taste Perception and Culinary Uses of Salt

    Salt’s ‘saltiness’ comes from its sodium content. When sodium ions enter taste cells, they trigger signals that the brain interprets as flavour.

    But what truly makes salt irresistible? It’s rarely eaten on its own; instead, it’s a key ingredient that enhances the overall taste of food, increasing the pleasure we derive from eating.

    Salt is not just your ordinary white granules – it can sometimes work as a ‘magic dust’ that transforms unsavoury foods in surprising ways.

    Imagine you’re preparing a soup. As you add a pinch of salt, not only does the saltiness kick up a notch, but suddenly, the soup tastes thicker and richer, and the flavours become more robust, making every spoonful more delicious.

    But did salt really make the soup more viscous and thicker?

    Not exactly. From a chemistry perspective, adding salt to a liquid like soup doesn’t actually increase its viscosity or thickness in a physical or chemical sense. Instead, the perception of the soup as ‘thicker’ and ‘richer’ after adding salt is largely a sensory illusion! Here’s how this happens…

    It’s believed that salt may activate somatosensory (touch) neural systems in the mouth, enhancing our own sensory experience of the soup’s texture and richness.

    With a pinch of salt in your cooking, you’re doing much more than just adding a salty note – you’re also potentially reducing bitterness and intensifying sweetness.

    Because salt ‘tricks’ taste receptors to block bitterness.

    This trick can actually be used to amplify the perceived sweetness of food. As the bitterness of food is suppressed by salt in our taste buds, sweetness detection becomes more pronounced. In essence, the way salt interacts with our taste buds alters how we detect other tastes in food, such as sensorily blocking bitter compounds and accentuating the perception of sweetness.

    This way, salt can help us enjoy vegetables and make them more palatable. With less interference from bitter flavours, the sweet tastes are perceived as more intense.

    For example, Brussels sprouts can have a bitter edge, but when roasted with balsamic vinegar and a sprinkling of salt, the salt not only cuts through the bitterness but also boosts the inherent sweetness of the sprouts and the tangy reduction of the vinegar.

    Practical Tips for Using Less Salt

    Start with a small amount — you can always add more, but it’s difficult to correct oversalting.

    Alternatively, add salt at the end of cooking. Salt sprinkled on a finished dish tends to be more perceptible because it does not fully dissolve and remains more on the surface, making its taste more immediate and direct when it hits your taste buds. Use alternative seasonings like fresh herbs, spices, garlic, onions, citrus, and salt substitutes to enhance flavour and reduce sodium intake.

    Rinse preserves and canned or bottled foods under cold water to reduce their sodium content.

    Always check labels on packaged foods for sodium content and compare brands to find lower-sodium options, especially when it comes to commercial soups, sauces, buttery spreads, cheese, salad dressings, canned vegetables, canned fish, preserves, pickles, olives, and cured meats.

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    © Copyright The Health Sciences Academy. The content, graphs and charts on this page have been exclusively prepared for The Health Sciences Academy and its prospect students, existing students and graduates. None of the content on this page and website may be reproduced, copied or altered without our explicit permission. Criminal and legal penalties for copyright and other infringement apply. All Terms and Conditions apply.

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