July 24, 2008

Worth Its Salt… The Healthier Option That is Saving Our Lives

IT'S a difficult habit to kick, and certainly chips will never taste right without it. But slowly we Brits are coming around to the fact that too much salt is bad for us.

Tests on the urine of almost 700 adults have shown that average salt intake is now 8.6g a day, compared with 9.5g when the first testing was done in 2000 and 9g last year. Despite this cause for optimism, we're still taking in around 50 per cent more than the recommended 6g a day, and 75 per cent of our consumption comes from food we buy with salt already in it.

So direct is the link between salt and human wellbeing, that the Food Standards Agency - which monitors salt intake regularly - says the reduction in salt consumption across the population over eight years represents the prevention of 6,000 premature deaths.

Reducing our daily salt intake from current levels to 6g a day - the recommended daily maximum - could prevent an average of 20,200 deaths a year, according to the FSA. Lowering salt in the diet lowers blood pressure, helping to cut heart disease and stroke.

The FSA has also announced the introduction of tougher targets of salt levels for many foods, following its 2006 ruling that salt should be reduced in 85 categories of processed foods. Eighty of those now face updated targets to be met by either 2010 or 2012.

While those who cook most food from scratch wonder how much, if any, salt they can add to the water in the pasta pan or the casserole, the Food Standards Agency reports that food manufacturers are attempting to do their bit by cutting down that moreish sprinkling carried in many processed products.

The Association of Cereal Food Manufacturers has brought salt levels in breakfast cereals down by 43 per cent, the Federation of Bakers says members are using 30 per cent less salt in pre-packed sliced bread, and 25 to 45 per cent of the salt content in biscuits has been removed, says the Biscuit, Chocolate, Cake and Confectionery Association.

"The FSA is encouraged that action to reduce the average amount of salt we are are eating is clearly having a positive impact," says Tim Smith, chief executive of the FSA. "We recognise that the great steps taken by many manufacturers and retailers have contributed to this success. But... we are aware that there is still plenty to do."

The Agency has begun working with the catering sector to improve the nutritional content of food eaten outside the home - a move which could have great impact, seeing as the average Briton eats one in six meals away from home each week.

The campaign group CASH (Consensus Action on Salt and Health) says it welcomes the FSA's latest figures, but many companies had made little effort to reduce the salt content of their foods.

CASH's chairman, Prof Graham MacGregor, said: "This is the most important news we have heard about health and eating for a long time. As salt intakes continue to fall over the next few years, the effect of this salt reduction policy on strokes and heart attacks, the commonest cause of death in the UK, will become even larger.

"The reason that the average salt intake has fallen is because many, but not all, food manufacturers and retailers, on an entirely voluntary basis, have reduced the salt they add to their foods. The UK is leading the world in the drive to save lives by cutting salt, and many other countries are now starting to follow."

According to nutritionist Roz Witney, the key to controlling your salt intake is not to eat processed food at all, but to try to eat natural ingredients with little or nothing added to them and to replace salt as a food flavouring with herbs, spices or stock.

"Many people find it easier to sprinkle a coating of salt on their food than to think about enhancing its flavour with herbs, for instance. But coriander and garlic are so much more flavoursome and interesting to eat.

"The large quantities of salt that some people put in food when they cook it or on to a dish when it's on the plate, serve no nutritional purpose whatsoever. Lots of foods naturally have sodium (salt) in them, so adding salt to your diet is a really bad idea. Too much sodium means nutrients from your food can't get into the cells of your body, and general wellbeing is fundamentally affected."

Even foods we think of as natural and healthy have salt in them, including hummus and oatcakes. Other foods, where we think the main danger is fat or sugar, such as cakes and biscuits, can also contain a fair amount of salt.

"Although manufacturers of processed foods seem to be making some progress on salt content, their steps are small and slow," says Ms Witney.

Rosemary Denison, a public health nutritionist working with Education Leeds on its school meals service, says the authority sees one method of getting the salt message home to families is via healthier school meals, devised in consultation with many of the city's 110,000 children across 230 schools. Education Leeds has a "no salt" policy for its school meals, and the last year has seen 100,000 schools dinners staff being trained in cooking food using alternative flavourings to salt, as well as reducing the fat and sugar content of recipes.

"I think we can get quite a few messages into the home via the children, as well as what we've been doing in improving the nutritional content of food in schools. It has helped, in terms of school dinners, that the chips aren't there any more, begging for salt."

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