30 September 2019

Should salt carry a health warning just like tobacco?

We are all familiar with the health warnings printed on cigarette boxes. But what if we told you that your salt shaker should also come with a health warning?

In the last few days of Heart Awareness Month in South Africa, a news release surfaced where the World Hypertension League and leading international health organisations advocate that salt sold in grocery stores and salt shakers in restaurants should carry the same front-of-pack health warning as tobacco products.

Drastic? Not really. A position statement published in the Journal of Clinical Hypertension warns that it is time for a stronger approach to help curb salt intake worldwide.

What the experts say

According to lead author, Dr Norm Campbell, former president of the World Hypertension League, unhealthy diets are the leading cause of deaths globally, and excessive salt consumption is a leading contributor.

"The World Health Organization established a target for countries to reduce sodium intake by 30% by 2025, and governments and the food industry have been working together to reduce salt in processed foods. However, urgent action now needs to be taken to raise consumer awareness of these dangers," said Dr Campbell in the news release

But what about simply interpreting labels and being aware of what you put in your body? We unfortunately tend to link salt only to the obvious sources – table salt sprinkled over food, and salty fast foods. It’s, however, more complicated than that.

"Most people aren't aware that the amount of salt they are consuming is raising their blood pressure and shortening their lives," said Dr Tom Frieden, President and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies.

"Warning labels on packaged foods and menus can help people make healthier choices. Adding warning labels to all salt packaging is another way to make the healthy choice the easy choice," he added.

How much salt is too much?

Salt is crucial for human bodies to help balance fluids, but the WHO recommends a limit of about one teaspoon (5g) per day. If you think you are within the limit because you don't add more salt to your food, you could be completely wrong.

Hidden sodium in processed foods, sweet and savoury alike, can easily push you over your daily limit. We are talking about less than obvious culprits like ready-made sauces, spreads, condiments, even cereals and bread.

Be more salt-savvy

While we probably won’t see these warning labels on salt in South Africa just yet, it’s important to start cutting down our salt intake. Here’s how:

  • Be aware of your blood pressure and have it tested regularly. Our guides can help you identify the symptoms of hypertension (high blood pressure).
  • Include fresh fruits and vegetables in your meals, as these include potassium that can help counter the effects of a high salt diet. 
  • Don’t immediately reach for the salt – experiment with fresh and dried herbs to add flavour.
  • Choose lower-sodium products like condiments, tinned foods etc.
  • If you use canned legumes, rinse them first to reduce sodium.
  • Be label-savvy. Look out for baking soda, baking powder, monosodium glutamate (MSG), disodium or phosphate on labels, as these may indicate sodium. Anything with the suffix “sodium” should be cause for concern.

Image credit: iStock


Ask the Expert

Hypertension expert

Dr Jacomien de Villiers qualified as a specialist physician at the University of Pretoria in 1995. She worked at various clinics at the Department of Internal Medicine, Steve Biko Hospital, these include General Internal Medicine, Hypertension, Diabetes and Cardiology. She has run a private practice since 2001, as well as a consultant post at the Endocrine Clinic of Steve Biko Hospital.

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