What is salt?

Salt is a chemical called sodium chloride. We recognise it as white crystals that we shake on to our food. But, in fact, most of the salt you eat isn’t what you add to food yourself. Most salt is hidden in the processed foods you buy. Takeaway and restaurant foods can also be very high in salt. It’s even found in foods where you might not expect to find it, such as cakes and biscuits, bread and breakfast cereals.

Why do I need salt?

The two components of salt – sodium and chloride – are both important for several processes within your body. Sodium is essential for your nerves to work properly and for you to be able to contract your muscles. Chloride is an important part of the juices in your stomach and bowels and helps you to digest food. Both sodium and chloride help to keep the fluid levels in your body balanced.

Salt and your health

A diet high in sodium can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure. Your blood pressure is a measure of the force that your blood applies to the walls of your arteries as it flows through them.

If you have too much sodium in your blood, your body will start to hold on to water to try to dilute the sodium. This will increase the amount of fluid in your body and your blood will increase in volume. As this happens, more pressure is put on your blood vessels and your heart has to work harder. Over time, the extra pressure and work can stiffen your blood vessels and cause high blood pressure.

If you have high blood pressure, you’re more likely to get several major illnesses, including heart disease and stroke. It may also lead to heart failure.

How much salt do I need?

You need a very small amount of salt in your diet. Try to eat no more than 6g of salt a day – around one teaspoon. This equates to about 2.3g of sodium a day. It’s difficult to eat too little salt. Most people eat too much and need to cut down.

Children should have less salt than adults, so don’t add any salt to your child’s food. Babies should only have a very small amount of salt, because their kidneys can’t cope with much. When your baby starts to eat solid foods, don’t add salt to any foods that you prepare for him or her. Also, remember not to give your child foods that aren’t specifically suitable for babies, as these may be high in salt.

Cutting down on salt

When you buy food products, check the label and see how much salt is in a product per 100g. Anything with over 1.5g is high in salt, so only eat these foods occasionally. Foods with 0.3g or less of salt are generally a healthy choice. Compare labels when you’re shopping and choose products that are lower in salt. Some foods have a high salt content, but this can vary across different brands, such as pasta sauces, crisps, pizza, ready meals and soups.

Not all labels will tell you the salt content of a product. Some will tell you the amount of sodium instead. You can work out the amount of salt by multiplying the sodium content by 2.5.

Some examples of foods that are often naturally high in salt include:

  • soy sauce
  • bacon
  • olives
  • salami
  • cheese
  • stock cubes

Try not to eat too much of these foods.

Finally, try not to add too much extra salt to your food. It may be hard at first, but if you reduce the amount of salt you use gradually, you will get used to having less salt and you may start to enjoy the taste of your food more.

Salt savers

Follow these top tips to reduce the amount of salt in your diet.

  • Cut down on processed foods, as these contain a lot of salt – eat fresh foods wherever possible.
  • Experiment with garlic, pepper, herbs and spices or a squeeze of lemon to flavour your food, instead of salt.
  • Taste your food before you add salt at the table – it might already be tasty enough without adding salt.
  • Try a low-sodium alternative to salt.
  • Pick canned vegetables and pulses such as baked beans that have ‘no added salt’ on the label.
  • Watch out for sauces that can be high in salt, such as tomato ketchup and pasta sauces – choose lower salt versions where possible.
  • If you eat out at a restaurant, ask that salt isn’t added to your meal or choose low-salt options.