Salt: How much is too much?

Salt intake has become a major health concern given that an array of studies have claimed too much salt in the diet can increase the risk of serious illness, such as heart disease and stroke. SADE OGUNTOLA in this report examines how much is “too much” when it comes to salt consumption.

People are often unaware of the amount of salt they consume. In many countries, salt intake has become a major health concern. An array of studies have claimed too much salt in the diet can increase the risk of serious illness, such as heart disease and stroke, prompting recommendations to lower salt intake.

For this reason the World Health Organisation recommends a maximum intake of two grammes per day and a 30 per cent reduction in population sodium intake by 2025. Salt is the primary source of sodium. But how much is “too much” when it comes to salt consumption?

Experts’ assessment of salt intakes in sub-Saharan Africa found that salt intake in much of sub-Saharan Africa is above the World Health Organisation’s recommended maximum intake and may be set to increase as the continent undergoes considerable urbanisation.

In fact, in this 2016 study published in the journal, Population Health Metrics, urban populations also consumed higher amounts of salt than rural populations.

But dietary guidelines recommend that adults should eat no more than six grammes of salt a day – that’s around one teaspoon. Children should eat less as part of a healthy diet.

Nonetheless, a research study conducted by a consortium of International Union of Nutritional Societies (IUNS) and Unilever scientists in 2013 found although salt reduction was perceived to be healthy and important, many people were not aware of the official daily salt intake recommendations or the sources of salt in their diet

This study was to gain insights on knowledge, attitudes and behaviours related to salt consumption across eight countries and five continents.

But earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued draft guidelines for the reduction of sodium in processed foods, which account for around 75 per cent of all salt consumption.

It is to lower salt intake among consumers to the recommended level of 2,300 milligrams daily, in order to reduce the health risks associated with high salt consumption.

However, some researchers suggest that such a level is too low. In fact, some say that consuming salt in such small amounts may even do more harm than good.


Use nutrition labels to check salt levels

How much sodium is in your food? Experts say that a single slice of bread contains between 80 and 230 milligrammes of sodium. Some breakfast cereals can contain up to 300 milligrammes of sodium before milk is added.

If sodium is listed on the label’s nutritional information instead of salt, the amount on the label should be multiplied by 2.5 to get the equivalent salt content. For example, if a portion of food contains a gramme of sodium per 100gm, such contains 2.5grammes of salt per 100grammes.

Salt in the diet could come from processed foods  like processed meats like bacon, ham and instant noodles or because they are consumed frequently in large amounts. Salt is also added to food during cooking in the form of bouillon cubes or at the table.


Salt intake: The benefits and risks

No doubt, the body needs some salt; it is important for nerve and muscle function, and it helps regulate bodily fluids.  But it is impossible to work out exactly how much salt a person eats in one day without knowing the precise salt content of each food and measuring the exact quantities eaten.

However, numerous studies have indicated that consuming too much salt can increase the risk of serious health problems like high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, kidney related diseases, heart disease and stomach cancer.

Too much salt may over-activate the immune system, causing autoimmune diseases. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported in the journal Nature that excessive consumption of salt might increase our risk of developing multiple sclerosis, allergies, lupus and other autoimmune diseases.


Learn more about salt

According to a consultant at the Harvard Medical School, United States, Dr Li-Li Hsiao, Africans in particular are genetically salt sensitive, thereby, prone to high cases of diabetes and high blood pressure.

Hsiao, who spoke at a medical outreach organised by the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Abuja declared: “Nigerian foods were prepared with too much salt, and as a result, there must be an awareness to educate people on how to eat properly with respect to balanced diet and low intake of salt.

“The black population is genetically very salt sensitive and so when they eat high salt food, there is high risk of high blood pressure and from that, there is the risk of heart disease and kidney disease. So people must cut down on salt intake at the community level.

“Nigerian foods are so favoured with lots of spice. So the use of salt can be reduced with the use of spice which will make the food to taste good and less salty.”

Also, an Associate Professor of Medicine, College of Medicine, University of Lagos, Dr Amam Mbakwem said that black people tend to hold onto more salt because of the climate.

“We sweat a lot and so, we require more salt to balance up. But once too much salt is in the system, it triggers high blood pressure. There are also some genetic differences between whites and blacks. Diet is also another reason for the high rate of hypertensive cases in black people.’’

WHO Assistant Director-General for Non-communicable Diseases and Mental Health, Dr Oleg Chestnov, said: “If the target to reduce salt by 30 per cent globally by 2025 is achieved, millions of lives can be saved from heart disease, stroke and related conditions.”