If salt could speak, it would undoubtedly complain about its reputation. Positioned as the bad boy of dietary minerals, its hidden presence in fast and convenience foods has got whole populations hooked on over-salted foods and contributed to the rising epidemic of coronary heart disease seen in the Western world.
However, salt, or rather the sodium chloride which it contains, is actually an essential nutrient. And because our bodies can’t produce it, it’s important that we consume safe amounts of sodium through a healthy diet.
Why it’s good
Salt is crucial for good health. We literally wouldn’t be able to function without it. It helps regulate the balance of fluids in our body, as well as control blood pressure. It’s also necessary for nerve, brain, cell, muscle and blood function.
In addition, sodium – along with potassium, calcium, magnesium and phosphate – is an important electrolyte found in the body. (Electrolytes are minerals dissolved in the body’s fluids which create electrically charged ions. Your body needs a balance of them to function).
Lastly, salt is a taste hero, beloved by chefs due to its flavour boosting properties. For chef and food writer Samin Nosrat, salt is the starting point for her book ’Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking.’ “Salt has a greater impact on flavour than any other ingredient,” she says. “It softens bitterness, tames sweetness and brings out the flavour in almost any food.”
Nosrat suggests making the water for blanching vegetables as salty as the sea. Sceptical? She points out that most of the salt goes down the drain anyway. So why bother? Because a bit of cooking alchemy happens when you use salt. The vegetables are greener, they taste better and brighter and surprise, surprise, you use less salt at the table. And if vegetables taste better – in fact, if any home-cooked food tastes better – isn’t that a good thing?
Why it’s bad
Well, let’s not beat around the bush. Too much salt leads to all manner of bad health situations. Excess sodium increases blood pressure because it holds excess fluid in the body and that, in turn, creates an added burden on the heart. The knock-on effects are an increased risk of stroke, heart failure, osteoporosis, stomach cancer and kidney disease. And excessive sodium is a massive public health problem. So big in fact, that since 2005, regulators of the UK food industry have reduced salt in foods by 30%. But there’s still work to do.
Government guidelines recommend no more than 6g (or a teaspoon) of salt a day, and less for younger children. The trouble is, modern life can be relentless and the best intentions of home-cooked meals are often replaced with hastily purchased ready meals, laden with hidden salt. (About 75% of the salt we consume comes from convenience foods). Furthermore, our propensity to snack on salted nuts, crisps and cured meats just compounds the problem. The solution? Go back to basics:
- Step away from the ready meals. Get the family involved and plan simple, easy to cook meals at home. If you automatically salt your food when it’s served, try and resist. Taste it first and season accordingly and sparingly.
- Eat more potassium-rich foods. A recent study published in The Lancet suggested that foods containing potassium such as bananas, oranges, cooked spinach and mushrooms, can negate the effects of excessive salt consumption. These fruits and vegetables are not only great for controlling sodium but are important for maintaining good gut health.
- Speak to your doctor if you’re concerned about salt and your health. They should give you a once over, check your blood pressure and make recommendations based on your diet and exercise.
Like most things in life, moderation is key.
Unless you follow a radical, sodium-free diet (which would be extremely difficult to do), think ‘low’ not ‘no’. Go for unprocessed foods, and where possible, cook from scratch with plenty of fruits and vegetables. And if someone offers you some salted caramel chocolates, go for it. But maybe just one or two.
At Balance Box, we add minimal salt to our food which makes it easier for you to control how much sodium is in your diet. Explore our range of healthy, delicious, perfectly balanced meals, delivered fresh to your door.