read Salt: Everything You Need to Know About This Vital Ingredient

Salt: Everything You Need to Know About This Vital Ingredient

Salt: Everything You Need to Know About This Vital Ingredient

Salt is an ingredient that connects every cuisine in the world. Without it, most savory dishes would taste bland and unpalatable. Although there is high importance of salt in the human body, it is crucial to consume it in balanced amounts, as eating too much of it may result in various health problems. Let us find out more about the function of salt in the body and ways to regulate its intake.

What is salt?

Salt, also known as sodium chloride, is a compound that is made up of about 40% sodium and 60% chloride. It is the main source of sodium in your diet. Salt is mainly used to flavor foods. You can also use it as a food preservative and binding agent. It functions as a preservative by removing moisture from the food, which goes a long way to prevent the growth of microbes that spoil food. Salt acts as a binding agent by restructuring the proteins in the food to form gels, which in turn, hold the product together. Read on to know what are the benefits of salt. 

Do you need salt (sodium) for good health?

Sodium is an essential mineral and electrolyte, which plays a crucial role in brain, nerve, and muscle function. It also helps in regulating blood pressure and the volume of body fluids. So, the function of salt in the body is quite pivotal.  

Although sodium is essential, consuming it regularly in high amounts has been scientifically proven to increase blood pressure, which may raise the risk of serious conditions like heart diseases, kidney diseases, and stroke. Excessive intake of salt, which is more than one teaspoon per day, can also result in fluid retention. In this scenario, fluid accumulates in the spaces between cells, which may result in uneasiness, puffiness, and temporary weight gain. So, it is necessary to limit your salt intake to the recommended amounts.

How much salt do you need in your diet?

The World Health Organization recommends that adults must consume less than 5g of salt, which is equivalent to a leveled teaspoon or 2g of sodium per day. Infants under the age of one should have less than 1g of salt a day, as their kidneys are not fully developed to process sodium. However, the average salt consumption by Indians is alarmingly high.  On average, we tend to consume 10g to 12g of salt per day, which is twice the maximum level of intake.   

According to a study published in Nature, this extra salt intake is one of the leading causes of high blood pressure in India. The study also suggested that lowering daily salt intake to the advised levels can reduce blood pressure by 1mm/Hg to 5.4mm/Hg.

Also read: Hypertension: When Did You Last Check Your Blood Pressure?

Sources of dietary salt

So, how does so much salt or sodium end up in your diet? It is because sodium is not a nutrient that you need to look for. It is present in most fresh foods and contributes to about 12% of your sodium intake. However, its content is higher in seafood, meats, and dairy products compared to fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts.

Salt, which is used to flavor food at the time of cooking, and the salt added at the table contribute about 5% and 6%, respectively, to the overall sodium intake. However, the major chunk of the sodium intake, which is 77%, comes from processed and commercially prepared foods

High-salt-containing processed foods like pickles, processed meats, and savory snacks are easy to identify because of their saltiness. Even processed foods such as bread and breakfast cereals, which do not taste salty, can have unexpectedly high levels of sodium or hidden salt. And as you tend to eat these foods often, the amount of sodium they provide can add up. 

Here are two tables with details of high-salt foods and high-sodium/sodium-rich foods along with other information, such as serving size, salt content (g/serving), and the daily requirement percent. 

High-salt foodsServing sizeSalt content (g/serving size)*% Daily requirement
Smoked meat1 cup (135g)3.3567
Sausage2 (150g)3.0561
Smoked fish1 cup (136g)2.6052
Ham2 slices (112g)2.5050
Pickles1 tbsp (20g)2.4048
Instant noodles1 pack (70g)2.1643
Bacon2 strips (30g)1.3527
Savory snacks (namkeen)1 small pack (50g)0.7715
Chips1 small pack (28g)0.5210
Cheese1 slice (21g)0.357
Salted nuts  1 small pack (42g)0.357
Papadum (Papad)1 (10g)0.449

*Note: The salt content may vary among brands.

High-sodium foodsServing sizeSodium content (g/serving size) *% Daily requirement
Sandwich1 (155g)1.1055
Pizza2 slices (230g)0.9849
Stock cube½ cube (5g)0.9246
Soy sauce1 tbsp (16g)0.8844
Canned soup1 cup (250ml)0.8241
Burger1 (133g)0.8040
Ready-to-eat meal1 serving (100g)0.5126
Cupcake1 (113g)0.3417
Bread2 slices (56g)0.2111
Breakfast cereals1 serving (30g)0.158
Ketchup1 tbsp (15g)0.147
Mayonnaise1 tbsp (15g)0.095

*Note: The sodium content may vary among brands.

Reading nutrition labels to spot the hidden salt

Most of the salt in your diet comes unwittingly from processed foods and not from salt added during cooking at home or table salt. You can reduce your salt intake by checking the nutrition labels on the packaging when buying everyday food items. Be careful, as the sodium content in processed foods may also vary among different brands and varieties. 

Converting the sodium levels in terms of salt content may give you a better understanding of how much salt you are consuming. For instance, 1g of salt contains 400mg of sodium. So, a teaspoon of salt, which comes to 5g, will add 2,000mg of sodium

If the product does not have a nutrition label or the label does not include information on sodium content, look at the list of ingredients. If the first few ingredients on the list are salt, sodium chloride, broth, brine, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), or sodium nitrate (a preservative), then the product likely contains a high amount of salt or sodium.

How to reduce your salt Intake

Here are a few tips to limit your salt intake.

1. Reduce salt added to cooked foods

Cutting back on salt in home-cooked food may seem like a daunting prospect, but it is easier than it seems. Our taste buds are not sensitive enough to notice a minor reduction of about 30% in salt. So, adding a three-fourth teaspoon of salt to your dish,  instead of one teaspoon, will not impact its taste. Also, since salt is an acquired taste, you can easily retrain your taste buds to enjoy low-salt food. 

Another perk of reducing salt in your food preparations is that you can enjoy the natural taste of your food ingredients, which usually gets camouflaged by the dominating salty taste. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) suggests adding salt to your dish at the end of cooking, instead of including it while preparing your meals, as you can get its taste even after reducing its quantity. 

2. Use salt substitutes to flavor food

Indian cuisine is incomplete without strong herbs and spices. These ingredients make it possible to prepare delicious food without the inclusion of salt. You can replace salt with alternative flavoring agents such as lemon juice, pepper, roasted cumin seed powder (bhuna jeera powder), dry mango powder (amchur), and carom seeds (ajwain).

Nowadays, specialty salts, such as Himalayan pink salt, rock salt, and sea salt are being promoted as healthier alternatives to table salt. However, substituting table salt with these is not a wise idea. Specialty salts contain small amounts of magnesium, potassium, iron, and other minerals. However, they have the same levels of sodium as table salt. So, take their health claims with a pinch of salt.

3. Refrain from using table salt

Keeping the salt shaker away from the dining area is a good practice to avoid added salt in your meals. If it is not within reach, you are less likely to put it in your food.

4. Check and compare nutrition labels

Sparing a few minutes to read and compare nutrition labels on packaged foods while grocery shopping can help you drastically cut down your sodium intake. Once you identify high-sodium packaged foods in your regular diet, you can control their portion size and how frequently you eat them.

Also read: Decoding Nutrition Labels: How You Can Choose to Eat Healthy

5. Choose healthier snacks

It is hard to resist snacking. However, it is possible to choose nutritious munching options such as fruits and vegetables, like carrots and cucumber. Moreover, opt for unsalted nuts over salty snacks. 

6. Limit high-salt containing foods

Restricting the consumption of high-salt-containing foods such as smoked meats, pickles, and cheese can aid in cutting down your salt intake. You may consume these items in small quantities. Additionally, buying fresh foods instead of tinned products can reduce your salt intake. It is because most tinned foods are preserved in brine.

Now that you have understood the function of salt in the body and ways to decrease your salt intake, follow these ideas and adopt healthy dietary habits.  

1. World Health Organization. Guideline: Sodium intake for adults and children. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2012.
2. Zandstra EH, Lion R, Newson RS. Salt reduction: Moving from consumer awareness to action. Food Quality and Preference. 2016; 48: 376-381.
3. Johnson C, Praveen D, Pope A, et al. Mean population salt consumption in India: a systematic review. Journal of hypertension. 2017; 35(1): 3-9.
4. Bochud M, Marques-Vidal P, Burnier M, et al. Dietary salt intake and cardiovascular disease: summarizing the evidence. Public Health Reviews. 2011; 33(2): 530-552.
5. Devi P, Rao M, Sigamani A, et al. Prevalence, risk factors and awareness of hypertension in India: a systematic review. Journal of human hypertension. 2013; 27(5): 281-287.