the good, the bad and the salt

This question was asked of me the other day. Do we need salt and how do I know if I’m consuming too much?

Sodium is an important major mineral needed in the diet and is most commonly consumed as sodium chloride, AKA salt.

Salt is often highlighted as a ‘bad’ food due to it’s ability to increase blood pressure, as high blood pressure is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. However, salt is necessary for the body. We need it for the transport of molecules across cell membranes, regulation of water around cells, for nerve impulse transmission and muscle contraction. At an extreme level, you may have heard of athletes collapsing from hyponatraemia (low sodium). Essentially this happens because they have over-hydrated with water and the sodium in the body has become too diluted. We can’t survive without sodium or chloride. Plus it makes everything taste good!

The Australian recommended adequate intake for sodium is 460 to 920 mg per day for adults, with an upper limit of 2,300 mg/day.

1 g salt = 400 mg of sodium

(5 g salt = 1 teaspoon)

1 teaspoon salt = 2,000 mg sodium

So this means that about half a teaspoon to 1 teaspoon of salt per day would meet the adult recommendation for sodium.

In Australia, it’s estimated that we consume most of our salt from processed foods (80%) and only a small amount (20%) from salt added to our plate or during cooking at home.

I just took a quick look in our kitchen and if I were to make a tuna sandwich, I would consume over half of the daily allowance for sodium. This is the added sodium in the processed foods and not the minimal naturally occurring  sodium in vegetables, or before adding any extra salt myself to the sandwich (on the tomatoes of course!):

  • 500 mg – 2 slices of spelt sourdough
  • 226 mg – tin tuna
  • 234 mg – serve olives
  • 160 mg – serve cheese
  • 17 mg – serve non-dairy margarine
  • 0 mg – tomato
  • 0 mg – lettuce
  • 0 mg – home made mayonnaise
  • Total: 1,137 mg sodium or 56% of the daily recommended amount

But who can be bothered reading all the nutrition labels on the package and adding up your sodium intake for the day? Not me and I don’t.

What I find works better is to just look at the ingredients in the processed foods, keep processed foods and added salt foods to a minimum and eat mainly whole foods that have no added salt.

So let’s change this up to a tuna salad with minimally processed foods and see what we get:

  • 226 mg – tin tuna
  • 234 mg – serve olives
  • 0 mg – tomato
  • 0 mg – lettuce
  • 0 mg – cucumber
  • 0 mg – capsicum
  • 0 mg – parsley
  • 0 mg – home made mayonnaise
  • Total: 460 mg sodium or 23% of the daily recommended amount

Quite a difference huh! So by swapping out a few items, this means I can add salt freely when I cook, or to my tuna salad with a side plate of sweet potato chips (mmm tastes so good with salt) and know that a few clicks of the salt grinder on each meal is unlikely to push me over the limit.

Take a look in your pantry and fridge and do some sums for yourself. You may be surprised at how much sodium you are consuming!