Humans are simple creatures. It's hard for us to focus on more than one thing at a time. And in our fast-paced world of constant stimulation, fuelled by social media, we are very easily distracted.
When it comes to food and health, that means the simple messages are the ones that tend to get the most cut-through. It's been the case with sugar. Most of us know, by now, that cutting down on sugar is a good thing; we are probably trained to look for it when we shop. We're tuned in to messages about low-sugar, no-sugar and naturally sweetened foods. Whether or not we properly understand these is debatable, but that's another story.
A bit of a poor relation in the health and diet story in recent years is salt. It doesn't get the attention it deserves when it comes to the negative impact it can have on our health. We should be paying as much attention to salt as we do to sugar, really.
Recent research has highlighted this. A very large study published in the Lancet in March found that too much salt is responsible for the disease-related deaths of three million people worldwide each year. Salt intake was the bigger contributor to premature death out of 16 different risk factors tested. But, apart from public health experts, not many of us are paying attention to salt. Research also suggests we don't really understand where we even get salt from in our food.
Part of that might be the fact that salt hides on food labels. It's in the ingredients list, but on nutrition panels, it's called sodium (technically salt is sodium chloride). And those numbers – milligrams of sodium – are hard to understand, compared to sugar, which is a lot simpler. Sodium is very easy to overlook, which it seems many of us must be doing; on average it's estimated we consume about twice the recommended upper limit for sodium.
What's more, we can't really see the harmful effects of salt, compared to sugar. We don't see weight gain and rotten teeth. If we eat too much salt in a meal we might feel a bit thirsty, but that's about it.
Until, of course, something serious goes wrong.
The reason we should care about salt is that there's a strong and direct relationship between higher sodium intake and higher blood pressure, which can be deadly if not treated. Sodium is a significant contributor to stroke, heart disease and kidney disease. Not everyone who eats lots of salt will develop these problems. But we don't know if we're one of them until it happens.
We do need some salt – and evidence suggests eating too little sodium could be just as bad as getting too much. Sodium performs important functions in our bodies, such as regulating our fluid balance.
Salt also performs useful functions in food. It can enhance sweetness and hide bitterness. It can round out and intensify flavours, and it's a preservative and a crisper of food.
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But most of us are in no danger of getting too little salt. And most of us could probably benefit from cutting down our salt intake. It's important to keep an eye on kids' intake, too, since evidence suggests salt intake in childhood can have negative health effects later in life.
Here are some easy ways to cut your salt:
• Choose whole and fresh. About 80 per cent of the salt we eat comes in the form of processed foods, not salt we add at the table or in cooking. The less processed food we eat, the lower our salt intake will be.
• Check your sauces. Lots of things that don't taste salty can be packed with salt – and sauces are a good example. Check tomato sauce, barbecue sauce, mustard, chilli sauce and dressings, and choose ones with the lowest sodium per 100g.
• Boost the spice. Using spices and herbs can add tons of flavour without salt; this is a good way to retrain your palate to like a less salty taste.
• Ditch the fancy salt. Himalayan and other gourmet salts have great marketing claims that might make you think they're healthier than regular salt. They're not. Salt is not a health food. Go for other seasonings instead.