You know too much sodium is bad, but now there’s research showing that you need it. What’s the deal? We check with the experts

What is it?

“Sodium is the one half of table salt and unfortunately the part that causes health problems, the other half is chloride” explains Arina Prins, a Pretoria-based registered dietician. Sodium is an essential mineral that is needed by every cell in our bodies and helps in a myriad of functions from regulating our blood pressure, blood volume and the balance of body fluids to helping with muscle contractions.
“However, excessive salt intake can be dangerous. This is because salt can cause increased blood pressure, which can increase your chances of having a stroke, a heart attack, heart failure or developing kidney disease,” adds Lucy Gericke, registered dietician at the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa. “Moreover, a high salt intake is a probable promoter of gastric cancer and is associated with osteoporosis, increased asthma severity and obesity.”

How much do I need?

Small amounts. The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa recommends a maximum level of salt intake should not exceed five grams, or one teaspoon, a day. This is equivalent to 2 000mg of sodium a day – remember that this includes “hidden” salt found in foods. “In fact,” says Gericke, “less than 40% of the salt we eat comes from salt that you add yourself, either during cooking or at the table.” This means that more than half of our salt intake comes from other sources like processed foods which contain hidden salt such as processed meats and cheeses, meat extracts, stock cubes and powders, salted snacks, cheese spreads, canned foods and regular breads. “It seems to be a common ingredient in products as it is an inexpensive way to enhance the flavour, texture and shelf-life of foods,” she adds. Sodium is not always added to food as salt. Other compounds, like monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium bicarbonate and sodium benzoate are also some ways of adding sodium to foods.

What can I do?

In July this year, our government released draft regulations which will legislate lower sodium contents for commonly consumed processed foods, including breads, cereals, butter, gravy powders and many other foods. In addition to the new salt laws, much can be done at home to reduce our intake of salt. Salt is an acquired taste so although it may take some time for your taste buds to get used to less salt – experts say it can take up to eight to 12 weeks – if you make a committed effort, you can decrease your salt intake and thus improve your health. Nicqui Duffield, registered dietician in Bryanston suggests that “by increasing your intake of fresh fruit and vegetables you will increase your potassium intake which will naturally increase sodium losses.” The most obvious first step is to stop using the salt shaker. If you use salt in food preparation leave the salt shaker off when you’re laying the table. Rather use herbs and spices to enhance flavour. “We should start making it habit to read our food labels carefully and understand when a food product is high in sodium,” recommends Vanessa McEwan registered dietician at Durbanville Medi-Clinic.

Warning signs

Read your labels and shop smart

Foods with more than 600mg sodium or 1.5g salt per 100g are very high in salt – rather avoid or limit these.

If a product is labeled “low sodium”, it should contain less than 120mg sodium per 100g.

“Very low sodium” products have 40mg of sodium or less per 100g.