Saturday 19 October 2019

These 'healthy' food brands are actually saltier than seawater, dietitian warns

The average Irish diet is very high in salt, which may be contributing to the worrying levels of obesity in both children and adults, independent of calorie intake, writes dietitian Orla Walsh

There is no evidence that 'fancy' salts like pink Himalayan are any better for us than regular table salt
There is no evidence that 'fancy' salts like pink Himalayan are any better for us than regular table salt
A diet high in salt can cause blood pressure levels to rise to unhealthy levels
Family foods like pesto - often a favourite with young children - can have a high-salt content
Dietitian Orla Walsh

A new survey has revealed certain brands of pesto are saltier than seawater. Although a popular choice for parents feeding their children, certain brands of pesto contain more salt than a fast food hamburger. Not only were the current salt levels within certain pesto sauces high, they were shown to be on the increase. It's alarming that some brands are becoming less healthy at a time when reformulation of products is a top priority.

Why should we be concerned about our salt intake?

Heart disease, stroke and related blood vessel diseases are the single highest cause of death in Ireland. They account for two in five of deaths. Many of the factors that increase risk of these diseases are modifiable, including blood pressure. Observational and experimental studies suggest that eating a diet high in salt can cause blood pressure levels to rise to unhealthy levels.

Although salt is thought to affect most people's blood pressure levels, the affect it has can be more profound in some people. There is evidence to suggest that if we were to make small improvements in the salt levels of the standard Irish diet, there would be a significant fall in the average blood pressure. This would then lead to a substantial positive impact on the burden of heart disease.

Several studies have found that when children eat high-salt diets, they can develop high blood pressure too. The association between salt intake and high blood pressure appears to be stronger among children who are overweight or obese.

As one in four Irish children are overweight or obese, this is worrying. Salt intake may also be exacerbating the obesity crisis in children. A study found that a 1g increase in sodium within a child's diet was associated with a 28pc increase in obesity.

Evidence suggests that there may be a direct link between a high salt diet, inflammation within the body and obesity that is independent of calorie intake.

Is it a case of 'less is more'?

Table salt is composed of 40pc sodium and 60pc chloride. Sodium is an essential nutrient for health. It helps our body to maintain an adequate volume of blood in each compartment of the heart's system and transporting molecules from cell to cell. Sodium is absorbed in the intestine and excess is excreted by the kidneys. Some is lost through sweat, too.

We eat very high-salt diets here in Ireland. The average daily intake is approximately 10g in adults. To put this in perspective, we need about 4g of salt each day, a child needs less. Our bodies do not require this level of salt.

The older we get, the less able our kidneys are to get rid of the excess salt we eat from our body. This often leads to fluid retention and increased stress on the heart. Therefore, as with everything, the issue around salt intake is that when taken in excess, our body struggles to cope and our body's health suffers.

What foods provide us with salt?

About 15pc of our salt intake is from natural foods and another 15pc from the salt we add in cooking and at the dinner table. The bulk, about 70pc, is from processed foods. Just two foods, processed meats and bread, make up half of our salt intake from processed foods.

Many people are surprised to hear that two slices of bread contain more salt than a standard packet of crisps.

A ham sandwich has a similar amount of salt as two to three packets of crisps. Although it features regularly in a child's lunchbox, a ham sandwich provides nearly 2g of their 3g salt quota each day.

Bread and processed meat aren't the only culprits. The remainder of our salt intake comes from other manufactured foods: soups and sauces, spreads, biscuits, cakes, pastries and breakfast cereals.

Listed below are a number of foods with the amount of salt they contain

1-2 tbsp pesto:            0.3-1.6g of salt

15g (1 tbsp) ketchup: 0.1-0.4g

100g smoked salmon: 2.4-4.7g

200g tin baked beans: 1.2-1.6g

Two sausages:             1.0-2.6g

Two slices of ham:        0.8-1.0g

A 225g pot of cottage cheese: 0.9-1.1g

100g Feta cheese:       1.9-3.0g

100G Blue cheese:       1.6-3.8g

60g Flakes of corn (breakfast cereal): 0.2-0.7g

60g rice puffs (breakfast cereal): 0.4-0.7g

Two slices of bread:     0.8-0.9g

One packet of crisps:   0.3-0.4g

A 30g bag of popcorn: 0.4-0.8g

250ml Coconut water: 0.25g

How to check the food label

At the back of a packet you will be able to find the 'nutritional information'. The salt content is listed here in grams. A low-salt product has less than 0.3g of salt per 100g.

When checking nutritional labels, it's important to know that each 1g of sodium translates to 2.5g of salt.

The easiest way to reduce your salt intake is to eat foods of one ingredient and to eat home-made meals.

'Fancy' salt

There are many different types of salt available in supermarkets. The likes of pink Himalayan and iodised salt are considered by some to be more healthy choices. But are they?

When considering all these fancy salts, they may sound exotic, cost you more money and be super-trendy on social media, but they are just salt.

Healthy people try to choose the natural rather than the processed versions of foods to avoid preservatives.

However, sodium is a preservative and all salt is sodium. Sea salt and table salt both contain the same amount of sodium. Instead of trying to use 'healthier salt' to flavour food, you'd be better off using fresh herbs and spices which are known to be beneficial to our health.

There is more and more talk about iodine within the media. Therefore, could iodised salt help improve deficiencies in Irish diets?

In theory, the answer is yes. However, a study tested 88 samples of iodised salt and found that 47 did not meet the necessary levels to warrant the name. The amount of iodine they contained varied in individual packages and across brands of salt. So, perhaps in a bid to increase iodine intake, we should all eat more fish or perhaps consume more milk.

Pink salt to 'detox'?

Hot water with lemon or lime and a pinch of pink salt has been touted to detoxify your body, improve digestion and promote healthy nails, skin and hair.

However, a search for research showed no such studies suggesting any of these benefits. Yes, all salts vary with respect to trace mineral they contain.

Although pink salt enthusiasts claim that it has more minerals than regular salt, you are unlikely to get any health benefits from eating it. It is nutritionally very similar to regular salt, albeit prettier and more expensive.

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