Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Salt - The Killer

The killer punch in a pinch of salt
The risks of salmonella in eggs, BSE in beef and food poisoning from burgers pales into insignificance compared with the dangers of the vast amounts of salt in the daily diet of every man, woman and child in the UK. If British food manufacturers cut the amount of salt they used by half,100,000 lives a year could be saved. True, this insidious, silent killer lurks on every kitchen table. It is certainly the most widely used legal substance which puts your health at risk. Although you add some to your own food, most is hidden in foods you eat each day, many of which you would not expect to contain so much salt. It sits comfortably in your kitchen, on your table, and in every single eating establishment, hospital and works' canteens, ‘greasy spoon' cafes, motorway stops, the little Italian place round the corner and the most expensive restaurants in the land.

I first wrote about the dangers of salt a decade ago and have since followed the fierce debate between medical scientists who recognise its dangers and the vast food manufacturing industry using its power and money to promote the cause of salt in their pursuit of profits. But finally the truth is out and salt has been found guilty. Guilty of causing raised blood pressure, heart disease and strokes.

We consume an average of 12 grams a day. But experts like Professor Graham MacGregor of CASH - Consensus Action on Salt and Hypertension, St Georges Hospital Medical School, London, insist that the maximum intake should be 6 grams a day and it would be much better for the health of our nation if it was 5, that's equal to just one teaspoonful. We actually need just one gram of salt per day and it is the sodium it contains which causes the problems. Sodium is toxic if there is too much of it in the body, so the kidneys have to work harder to get rid of it. This, in turn, makes the heart work harder as well, pumping more blood through the kidneys. The end result is that the blood pressure goes up.

What the food industry relies on is the fact that most of the population are addicted to salt and historically this addiction goes back between five and ten thousand years. When our primitive ancestors were hunter-gatherers the salt was neither needed or used but according to Professor MacGregor, when they gave up their nomadic lives, settled in fixed communities and became farmers, they had to find ways of preserving meat to last over winter.

The first step on man's slide into salt addiction was the discovery that meat could be preserved by steeping it in brine, and it's certain that the ancient Egyptians were doing this by 2000 B.C. Once started on the slippery slope it was difficult to get off, as the taste of salt affects the tastebuds to such an extent that food without salt becomes bland and boring.

By the 19th century coastal communities ate vast amounts of salt as their diets were often mostly comprised of salted fish. But the invention of refrigeration in the early 20th century produced a rapid drop in the overall use of salt as a preservative. The seeds of our modern salt disaster were sown by the dramatic increase in the availability of canned and processed foods in the latter half of the 20th century. The coming of the microwave, instant frozen meals, TV dinners, packet soups and the accompanying epidemic of fast food, burger, pizza and kebab outlets that spread like a rash over the face of the UK, was another nail in the coffin of those destined to die prematurely, unnecessarily and preventably from strokes and heart disease.

The great British public have certainly begun to understand the message that salt is bad and the amount of table salt used in homes has gone down from 55,000 tons a year in 1985 to 30,000 tons last year. But tragically the majority of the food industry continues to ignore the medical establishment's pleas for less salt in their products. Industry adds around 220,000 tons of salt each year to the food that you and your children eat on a daily basis, which, together with the 30,000 tons used domestically is enough to fill St. Paul's Cathedral to the top of the dome.

It's hard to understand the hypocrisy of an industry which promotes breakfast cereals as being of benefit to the health of the nation because they're low in fat - you wouldn't expect to find fat in breakfast cereals - and because some of them contain fibre which helps lower cholesterol levels, when at the same time these cereals contain large amounts of salt. A bowl of cornflakes contains one gram of salt - just under a quarter of a teaspoon and exactly the same as a bowl of Atlantic sea water!

In spite of endless cooking programmes on TV, dozens of new cookbooks every month, and cookery articles in every sort of publication, cooking skills in this country are declining. For most people cooking has become a spectator sport, watch the programme, read the book, get an instant meal from the freezer and stick it in the microwave. And as we become more and more reliant on these convenience foods, and even though low fat versions are heavily promoted as a healthy option, manufacturers don't talk about the vast amounts of salt they contain.

One of the worst offenders is commercially baked bread. Bread should be a staple healthy nutrient providing protein, vitamins, minerals, energy and fibre, and three or four slices of bread a day is an essential part of a healthy balanced diet. But four slices of typical British steam baked loaf will on their own give you and your kids almost half your day's salt allocation. Don't think you're doing any better by giving them a pizza, plain cheese and tomato is half a teaspoonful of salt and if you start adding ham, salami or bacon you could easily get a whole day's dose from one medium sized pizza.

It's bad enough for adults who should be aware of what they're eating but our children are being force fed these life-threatening doses of salt which is in the food chain purely for the convenience and profit of the manufacturers. Give kids salty food and they get thirsty and they drink more cans of fizzy drink, which equals more rotten teeth and more profit for the food industry. It's no coincidence that modern burger bars smother their chips with salt - a quarter of a teaspoon on a small portion of fries - burger bars sell drinks too. Many other high salt foods are attractively packaged to appeal to youngsters, crisps, potato puffs, cornsnacks, salty nibbles, all there to lock into children's growing salt addiction. The Food Standards Agency survey of young people reveals that many children are already eating more salt each day than the recommended safe amount for adults, and Professor MacGregor tells me that four year old children are already showing changes in their veins and arteries similar to those found in the early stages of hypertension.

In spite of the efforts of some supermarkets, led originally by the Co-op, to reduce the amount of salt in some products, the main bulk of British food manufacturing industry seems happy to sit on its hands. They do nothing while people die unnecessarily of high blood pressure and subsequent strokes and heart disease which, for many people, can be so easily avoided. There is a marketing advantage for them in promoting low fat, low sugar foods because the general public understands these hazards. Unfortunately lowering the fat usually means increasing the salt - a message the public do not understand.

We probably won't see much change until there is legislation, highly unlikely as the government is far too busy persecuting the small food producers, local butchers shops, greengrocers who won't use metric measures and subjecting the real food small businesses to the hygiene terrorism of environmental health departments.

Perhaps we have to wait for the family of a prematurely deceased parent to sue for salt poisoning.

How can you beat the manufacturers and avoid the foods with high salt content? It's not so easy - they don't give you the amount of salt per portion or per 100 grams on the packet, what they state is the content of sodium. This always looks like quite a small number, but to find out what it means in grams of salt take your pocket calculator to the supermarket, look at the label and multiply the sodium content by 2.5, a much more worrying figure. As a rule of thumb anything which contains more than 0.5 grams of sodium per serving or per 100 grams is high in salt and should be avoided. If you want to be one of 100,000 lives a year saved by halving the average daily salt consumption from two teaspoons to one, throw away your salt cellar, don't encourage your kids to eat salty food and read the labels before you buy any packaged or processed food.


A takeaway snack of pitta bread and taramasalata has half a teaspoon of salt,

a chicken tikka sandwich is just over half a teaspoon

a bacon sarnie has a massive two thirds of a teaspoon.

canned soups - around 4 grams a portion, almost your safe daily allowance

one Danish pastry - a tenth of a teaspoon

a traditional English breakfast - one and a half teaspoons

a burger bar breakfast (sausage, egg and muffin) - half a teaspoon

pretzels - quarter of a teaspoon in one small bag

baked beans - average portion without toast, a third of a teaspoon


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