The Government’s new food strategy is calling for a £3bn sugar and salt tax to “improve our diets”. But just how dangerous is salt and what evidence is there to suggest that we should be dramatically cutting down on the white stuff?
If there’s one flavour that many of us can’t live without, it’s salt. Whether it’s sprinkling salt on chips, plumping for salt and vinegar crisps or buying any kind of processed food, salt is everywhere. And it’s because of how ubiquitous sodium is in our diets that a new government food strategy is calling for a £3bn sugar and salt tax to “improve the UK’s diet”.
I’ve always been a little confused by the role that salt plays in our diet. I don’t cook with salt, I never add salt to my meals (drowning everything in lime juice or vinegar instead). When I run for a long time, I don’t sweat, I crystalise (my skin and clothes become crusted in salt), which is apparently a sign of the body burning through its sodium supply (which can put you at risk of hyponatremia or low blood sodium). Experts have told me to try to replace that lost salt in my diet following these sessions – something I do with a family bag of salt and vinegar crisps or Marmite crackers.
Clearly, we need salt. So why are ministers looking to charge us even more for it?
“When it comes to salt, it’s the dose that makes the poison,” says nutritionist Rohini Bajekal from Plant-Based Health Professionals UK. “The World Health Organisation says that reducing salt intake is as important as stopping smoking when it comes to heart disease.”
That’s a pretty worrying claim when you consider that, according to Public Health England, the UK is currently consuming a third more salt than the recommended maximum (6g per day).
Hala El-Shafie, registered dietitian and consultant nutritionist, tells Stylist that eating such a high amount of salt is putting the nation at risk of raised blood pressure, which in turn, heightens the chances of heart disease and stroke.
Equally as serious, it also increases water retention – something that we often hear being kicked around as a rather mundane issue. It’s not: “If you eat too much salt, your kidneys may not be able to filter excess sodium from your bloodstream,” El-Shafie explains. That excess water then “puts added pressure on your heart and blood vessels, triggering high blood pressure. It can also lead to other medical issues such as osteoporosis and stomach cancer.”
We do actually need salt in our diets, right?
It’s not so much that we need salt – we need the sodium that’s found in salt. “Sodium is essential for our bodies to maintain their overall fluid balance, transport oxygen and nutrients and allow our nerves to pulse with electricity,” says El-Shafie.
“Salt” and “sodium” are often used interchangeably but they’re not the same thing. Salt, aka sodium chloride, is a crystalline structure that’s found in nature (in the sea, for example). Sodium, on the other hand, is a mineral and one of the chemical elements that makes up around 40% of salt’s structure.
“Sodium is an essential nutrient that is needed by the body in relatively small amounts,” El-Shafie explains. “It is also a very popular ingredient used in the food industry. However, the problem mainly occurs when too much sodium is consumed and we don’t even realise how much it has an effect on our body.”
Pink Himalayan versus white table salt
You’ve probably seen health food shops and cafes selling or promoting the use of things like Himalayan pink salt. For the price, you might think that there are real health benefits attached to switching from your standard supermarket’s own brand table salt but, El-Shafie confirms, “there is no peer-reviewed work to establish the nutrient profile of pink salt and no reliable evidence to suggest any health benefits.”
Pink salt contains 2% less sodium than table salt and trace minerals of calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium but, she points out, you’d need to consume nearly five times more salt than the daily recommended amount to get any benefits from these extra minerals – which would be “extremely harmful to your body.”
As the majority of us need to reduce our salt consumption, Bajekal says, “a much better idea would be to spend your money on nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds,” rather than fancy salts.
So, how much salt do you eat?
It’s really hard to visualise how much salt we should be consuming when it’s in grams. For sugar, we’re told the average adult should eat no more than seven sugar cubes (which doesn’t really seem like a lot when you think about how much must be used in a single bar of chocolate).
El-Shafie says that the problem is that we’re unaware that salt has been added to most food products: “75% of the salt we consume is added to everyday foods. It’s not just in ready meals, soups and sauces,” she warns, “breads, cereals and sweet foods can harbour a salty surprise.”
“Foods don’t have to taste salty to be salty,” and that’s one of the reasons that it can be hard to reduce salt intake. If it’s already in the food we buy, we can’t take it out.
How to reduce your salt intake
Bajekal offers four tips for reducing salt usage:
- Acidity: Adding a fresh squeeze of lemon or lime or flavoured vinegar (such as raspberry vinegar) can bring the flavours to life without salt
- Cook with dried herbs and spices: Garlic powder, onion powder, basil, oregano, cumin, curry powder, cinnamon and fresh ground pepper are just some of the dozens of herbs and spices with incredible nutritional properties. These add tons of flavour without the need for salt.
- Use fresh herbs: Add a bunch of fresh coriander, basil, mint or parsley to a dish such as a salad or stew so you don’t need a salty substitute. This also boosts the antioxidant content of the meal
- Eat more whole plant foods: Swap meat and processed foods for more whole plant foods in your diet which are also low in saturated fat, free of cholesterol and high in fibre, vitamins and minerals.
As for snacks, your best bet is to opt for unsalted varieties of things like nuts (although they may take a little time to get used to). For proper control over your salt intake, cooking your own food may be the best way forward but you have to consider the time, effort and money that comes with that decision.
Bread, cheese and meat products like bacon are some of the most sodium-rich foods we can eat, while fruits, vegetables, beans and wholegrains are inherently low in sodium (aside from things like olives, which have added salt). Nutritionist Tai Ibitoye also warns that things like pickles, ham, tomato ketchup and mayonnaise can also be high in sodium but that “the sodium and salt content will vary between brands. Therefore, it’s important to read nutritional labels and opt for the lower salt versions.”
“It is best to skip table sauces, stock cubes and pre-prepared soups and gravies and check that your spice mixes don’t contain any added salt,” Bajejal suggests. “You should also minimise the use of miso, tamari, soy sauce and other salty condiments, particularly if you already have a health issue such as high blood pressure.”
But what about things like marmite?
No vegan worth their salt (pardon the pun) goes without a weekly dose of marmite. Rich in vitamin B12, it’s a go-to condiment for many plant-based eaters because of its taste and vitamin profile. Ibitoye acknowledges that while marmite is a good source of vitamin B12, “people who are on a vegan diet may want to try the reduced salt alternative (although still high in salt) and use very small amounts.”
She also suggests that “there are other reliable sources of vitamin B12 such as some fortified breakfast cereals (again, checking the salt content is important), vitamin B12-fortified soya yoghurts and plant-based dairy alternatives.” And, of course, there are salt-free vitamin B12 supplements that we can take to ensure our levels are topped up.
The salt tax – a necessary evil?
With all of this in mind, the salt tax may sound like a reasonable idea. After all, educating people about how to read labels, understand which foods are salty can only be a good thing. Ibitoye believes that the salt tax is “one of the steps needed for more food manufacturers to reform their food products in order to help people lower their salt intake.”
“While the salt tax is a way to help people reduce their salt or sodium intake, there also needs to be more awareness and education around nutritional labelling on food packaging so that people can make better-informed choices when it comes to buying foods and opt for lower-salt options,” she says.
The most obvious solution to the UK’s salt addiction, perhaps, is to reduce the amount of salt added to foods that we don’t expect it to be in. “We need more transparency about the added salt in foods and how many tablespoons are added to a portion so that we can determine how much salt we’re consuming daily,” El-Shafie explains.
It’s also worth noting that we consume more sugar today in England – despite the sugar tax and anti-obesity measures metered out by government officials. That suggests that taxing the poor isn’t the way to go and that we need better food options. But that is a discussion for another day!
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Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.