New research suggests many of us are eating far more salt than we realise – possibly dangerous amounts. A new study found participants were eating around 9 g a day, well above the recommended upper limit of 6 g per day or less. And a lot of that was hidden salt, not what we sprinkle at the table or add when cooking.
The George Institute for Global Health looked at the diets of 400 people in the NSW town of Lithgow. Participants were asked to recall their food intake over a 24-hour period, then had urine tests to reveal the true picture of how much salt they had actually consumed.
The study found that while participants thought they were eating around 6.8 g from recalling what they ate, they were actually consuming closer to 9 g a day when salt was measured in their urine. Weighting their data for age and sex, the researchers estimated daily salt intake for the wider Australian population at about 9.9 g per day. That’s almost twice what the World Health Organisation suggests is a safe level.
Co-author Associate Professor Jacqui Webster, of The George Institute, says the findings reveal Australians are still largely unaware of the amount of salt in their diets.
“We are consuming way too much every single day,” Associate Professor Webster says.
The findings were published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, coinciding with World Hypertension Day (May 17). Excess salt consumption is a contributing factor in high blood pressure (also known as hypertension), and high blood pressure can contribute to significant health problems such as heart disease and stroke.
Australian government guidelines suggest we should be sticking to 6 g or less per day, while the World Health Organisation recommends that adults consume less than 5 g (just under a teaspoon) of salt each day.
The George Institute study was aimed at updating salt intake findings by the Australian Health Survey (AHS) between 2011 and 2013. The AHS survey, which used dietary recall, estimated intake at 6.2 g per day – far lower than the new figures using the more accurate urine tests.
“Our results show a pressing need for a co-ordinated approach by government, industry and the public to reduce salt consumption. High salt intake is a major factor contributing to cardiovascular disease and we know that even a small reduction can lead to huge national health benefits,” Associate Professor Webster says.
Dr Kacie Dickinson, an Associate Lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics at Flinders University and Accredited Practising Dietitian, says this study shows that by combining different methods to estimate salt intake in Lithgow and applying these to population estimates we have now have up to date and more accurate estimates of the average salt intake of Australians.
“These findings about excess salt intake support previous research that has found Australians eat too much salt. The excess salt intake likely reflects a bigger problem related to our eating habits Australia – too many packaged and junk foods and not enough fruits and vegetables,” Dr Dickinson tells SBS.
Foods that don’t necessarily taste salty can often contain quite high levels of salt. For example snack foods like donuts, muffins and pastries.
And it’s hidden salt in many of these packaged foods that’s often the biggest problem.
“Salt that is present in processed foods is a much bigger contributor to salt intake than salt added to foods. Salt hidden in foods can account for up to 80 per cent of daily salt intake.
“Not highlighted by the current research, but important to mention is that children are often eating far more salt than they should. The upper limit for salt is much lower for younger children, but because much of the salt is hidden in processed foods, people may not realise their child is eating too much.
“People who have poor access to fresh foods may find it hard to limit excess salt intake because they consume more packaged foods, which tend to contain a lot of salt. This may include people who experience food insecurity and people living in remote areas,” Dr Dickinson says.
What can you do to keep your salt intake at healthy levels?
Look out for salt lurking in some surprising foods.
“Foods that don’t necessarily taste salty can often contain quite high levels of salt. For example snack foods like donuts, muffins and pastries. You shouldn’t always rely on your taste buds to determine how much you’re consuming,” Dr Dickinson says.
“If in doubt, you can check the label on your packaged foods. Food labels in Australia usually give the figure for sodium rather than salt. So if you are reading a nutrition information panel, try to look out for foods that have less than 400 mg sodium per 100 g of food. Any packaged food labelled less than 120 mg sodium per 100 g of food is best.”
Webster highlights that if you start adding less salt to your food, your taste buds will soon adjust.
"Start by cutting back on the salt you add to food whilst cooking. After just three weeks of eating less salt, your taste buds become more sensitive. Essentially you will get the same flavour from less salt. You can also use other ingredients like herbs and spices, wine, onions, chilies and lemons, to add extra flavour.
"Don’t be fooled into thinking sea salt or rock salt are any better for you. Whilst table salt is highly processed, rock and sea salts are just as high in sodium chloride as table salt, regardless of their healthy image."
She has a tip for checking labels, too.
"A low salt food is below 120 mg sodium per 100 g and high salt foods are over 500 mg sodium per 100 g, but you are going to eat more than 100 grams of most foods, so remember to check the amount of salt per portion."
She also wants to see less salt used in manufacturing.
“We need more manufacturers to reduce the amount of salt in the foods we consume. We’ve had some progress through government salt reduction targets but efforts need to be increased.”
The study found the food categories that contributed the most to salt consumption in Lithgow were bread and cereal products, meat dishes, soups and savoury sauces and condiments.
Earlier this year, other research by the George Institute found that just two slices of bread could contain more salt than a packet of chips, depending on the brand.