We need some salt in our diet. The sodium that we get from salt is vital for a number of important functions in your body. It helps to keep the right balance of fluid levels in your body, and to keep your nerves and muscles working properly.
You only need a small amount though – adults should aim to have no more than 6g of salt (the equivalent of one teaspoon) a day. This is the equivalent of 2.4g of sodium. Most people have more than this without even realising, as much of your salt intake comes from processed foods.
For instance, two slices of bread contains the equivalent of nearly 1g of salt, while a portion of tomato soup can easily contain more than 1g.
For babies and children, the recommended limit is much lower (see image below). A baby’s kidneys are too immature to cope with too much salt. Don’t add salt to a baby’s or child’s food, especially babies who are just being weaned. You also shouldn’t give babies any processed foods that aren’t specifically designed for babies.
Almost everyone eats more salt than they need. It’s easy to do as salt is added to many processed foods that we eat every day – like breads and breakfast cereals. So you’re probably not even aware when you’re eating it.
Eating too much salt is strongly linked to high blood pressure, which in turn raises your risk of stroke and coronary heart disease. There’s also evidence of a link with kidney disease, osteoporosis and stomach cancer.
Salt isn’t just something you add to your own food while you’re cooking or at the table. It’s also added to many processed food products during manufacturing to add flavour, texture or for preservation. In fact, most of the salt in our diet comes from processed foods.
It may be obvious that some foods have lots of salt in them when they taste salty, like crisps. But this isn’t always the case. There are plenty of everyday foods, such as bread and breakfast cereals that have ‘hidden salts’ – meaning they are high in salt, even if you can’t taste it. Here are some example of foods that are often high in salt.
- Bread, breakfast cereals, biscuits, cakes and pastries.
- Most cheeses and processed cheese.
- Processed meats, such as pate, ham, bacon, gammon, sausages and chicken nuggets.
- Ready meals, soup and pasta sauces.
- Salted popcorn or nuts, crisps and cheesy biscuits.
- Stock cubes and sauces such as ketchup, mayonnaise, soy sauce, pesto and curry paste.
Many food manufacturers have started making positive changes to reduce the amount of salt they add to processed foods. So it’s worth checking food labels to see how different products compare. See next section for more information on what you should be looking for on food labels.
The easiest way to check whether a food is high in salt is to check the nutritional information on the label. Many food manufacturers have adopted the ‘traffic light’ system of labelling. This allows you to see at a glance whether a food is high in salt (red), medium (amber) or low (green). You’ll need to see whether the amounts given are per average portion size, or per 100g. Also, think about how much you are likely to eat of the product: look at the weight of the packet as a guide.
Sometimes, a label won’t use the traffic light system, or it might only include the level of sodium rather than salt. If this is the case, use the guide below to assess whether it’s high in salt.
Low Medium High Salt (amount per 100g)
0 - 0.3g
0.3 - 1.5g
More than 1.5g
Sodium (amount per 100g)
0 - 0.1g
0.1 - 0.6g
More than 0.6g
There are many ways in which you can reduce your salt intake. Here are a few of the key actions you can take.
- Cook from scratch when you can, using fresh meat, fish and vegetables rather than processed foods.
- Try not to add salt during your cooking – instead, try other flavours, such as herbs and spices, black pepper and lemon juice.
- Cut back on table sauces such as ketchup, mayonnaise and soy sauce.
- Check food labels when shopping to compare brands and different products.
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- Salt and health. BDA, The Association of UK Dietitians. www.bda.uk.com, published March 2016
- Salt and health. Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, 2003. www.gov.uk
- Electrolytes and fluid balance. Oxford handbook of nutrition and dietetics (online). Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, updated December 2015
- Salt and your health. Consensus Action on Salt & Health. www.actiononsalt.org.uk, accessed 14 November 2017
- How does salt affect children? Consensus Action on Salth & Health. www.actiononsalt.org.uk, accessed 14 November 2017
- Salt and cardiovascular disease. Consensus Action on Salt & Health. www.actiononsalt.org.uk, accessed 14 November 2017
- Cardiovascular disease prevention. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), June 2017. www.nice.org.uk
- Salt and health factsheets. Consensus Action on Salt & Health. www.actiononsalt.org.uk, accessed 14 November 2017
- Healthy choices – low salt shopping guide. Consensus Action on Salt & Health. www.actiononsalt.org.uk, published 2014
- Check the label! Consensus Action on Salt & Health. www.actiononsalt.org.uk, accessed 14 November 2017
- Cooking at home. Consensus Action on Salt & Health. www.actiononsalt.org.uk, accessed 14 November 2017
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Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Bupa Health Content Team, December 2017
Expert reviewer Mr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian
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