Increasing production of more and more processed food, rapid urbanization, and changing lifestyles are transforming dietary patterns. Highly processed foods are increasing in availability and becoming more affordable. People around the world are consuming more energy-dense foods that are high in saturated fats, trans fats, sugars, and salt. Salt is the primary source of sodium and increased consumption of sodium is associated with hypertension and increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
At the same time, as their eating patterns shift, people are consuming less fruit vegetables and dietary fibre (such as whole grains), that are key components of a healthy diet. Fruits and vegetables contain potassium, which contributes to reduce blood pressure.
Salt in the diet can come from processed foods, either because they are particularly high in salt (such as ready meals, processed meats like bacon, ham and salami, cheese, salty snack foods, and instant noodles, among others) or because they are consumed frequently in large amounts (such as bread and processed cereal products). Salt is also added to food during cooking (bouillon and stock cubes) or at the table (soy sauce, fish sauce and table salt).
However, some manufacturers are reformulating recipes to reduce the salt content of their products and consumers should read food labels and choose products low in sodium.
Recommendations for salt consumption:
For adults: WHO recommends that adults consume less than
5g (just under a teaspoon) of salt per day (1).
For children: WHO recommends that the recommended maximum intake of salt for adults be adjusted downward for children aged two to 15 years based on their energy requirements relative to those of adults. This recommendation for children does not address the period of exclusive breastfeeding (0–6 months) or the period of complementary feeding with continued breastfeeding (6–24 months).
All salt that is consumed should be iodized or “fortified” with iodine, which is essential for healthy brain development in the fetus and young child and optimizing people’s mental function in general.
How to reduce salt in diets
Salt consumption at home can be reduced by:
not adding salt during the preparation of food;
not having a salt shaker on the table;
limiting the consumption of salty snacks;
choosing products with lower sodium content.
Other local practical actions to reduce salt intake include:
integrating salt reduction into the training curriculum of food handlers;
removing salt shakers and soy sauce from tables in restaurants; Introducing product or shelf labels making it clear that certain products are high in sodium;
providing targeted dietary advice to people visiting health facilities;
advocating for people to limit their intake of products high in salt and advocating that they reduce the amount of salt used for cooking; and
educating children and providing a supportive environment for children so that they start early with adopting low salt diets.
Misperceptions about salt reduction
“On a hot and humid day when you sweat, you need more salt in the diet:” There is little salt lost through sweat so there is no need for extra salt even on a hot and humid day, although it is important to drink a lot of water.
“Sea salt is not ‘better’ than manufactured salt simply because it is ‘natural.’” Regardless of the source of salt, it is the sodium in salt that causes bad health outcomes.
“Salt added during cooking is not the main source of salt intake.” In many countries, about 80% of salt in the diet comes from processed foods.
“Food does not need salt to have appealing flavour.” It takes some time for a person’s taste buds to adjust, but once they get used to less salt, one is more likely to enjoy food and notice a broader range of flavours.
“Food has no flavour without salt.” Whilst this may be true at first, taste buds soon become accustomed to less salt and you are more likely to enjoy food with less salt, and more flavour.
“Foods high in salt taste salty.” Some foods that are high in salt don’t taste very salty because sometimes they are mixed with other things like sugars that mask the taste. It is important to read food labels to find out sodium levels.
“Only old people need to worry about how much salt they eat:” Eating too much salt can raise blood pressure at any age.
“Reducing salt could be bad for my health:” It’s very difficult to eat too little salt since there are so many everyday foods containing salt.