• "I recommend keeping your salt shaker in the cupboard and using lots of wholefoods first to flavour your meals." (Moment RF/Getty Images)Source: Moment RF/Getty Images
Salt consumption is essential for the human body to function properly, but if you have too much, you can face a raft of serious health risks. So how do you strike the right salty balance?
By
Yasmin Noone

13 Oct 2021 - 11:34 AM  UPDATED 13 Oct 2021 - 12:32 PM

Salt is one of the world’s most valuable and recognisable flavour enhancers.

Once a legitimate form of currency in ancient Rome, the famed preservative is now quite a controversial additive in a lot of recipes.

Consuming too much salt is bad for you. However, if you eliminate salt from your diet completely you could die, as it’s a nutrient that’s essential for human life. All humans require salt to balance fluids in their blood, maintain a healthy blood pressure, and regulate muscle function and nerve impulses. That’s why salt matters – a lot!

“We all need a little bit of salt in our diet,” senior food and nutrition advisor for the Heart Foundation, Jemma O’Hanlon tells SBS. “But we get all the sodium we really require from a healthy, balanced diet.”

“Close to six million Australians currently have high blood pressure. So salt consumption is definitely something we need to be aware of.”

O’Hanlon, who is also an Accredited Practicing Dietitian, explains that we consume salt from a vast variety of food sources every day – including many that don’t even taste salty. Herein lies the core of a serious health issue – we may be consuming too much salt without even knowing it. 

“These days, we are surrounded by a lot of packaged, processed and discretionary foods that are higher in salt than natural foods or less processed wholefoods,” O'Hanlon says. 

It’s estimated that half of the Australian diet is made up of ultra-processed foods that may be high in sodium. According to the World Health Organisation, an adult salt intake of fewer than five grams per day may help to reduce your risk of blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stroke and coronary heart attack. However, most people are averaging about nine to 12 grams a day.

“That is double the amount of salt that we really should be consuming. Too much salt can increase your blood pressure. Essentially, high blood pressure means your heart has to work a lot harder to pump blood around our body. That can also increase your risk of stroke, heart attack and kidney problems as well.

“Close to six million Australians currently have high blood pressure. So salt consumption is definitely something we need to be aware of.”

What does ultra-processed food really do to our blood sugar?
Ultra-processed are designed to taste delicious. Created with high levels of fat, sugar, salt and industrially processed additives, it's no wonder we want to keep eating them. But what are these foods really doing to our bodies?

Put your salt shaker away and try these foods

The positive side of the story is that we all have the ability to change the way we consume added salts.

We can avoid or limit the consumption of highly processed foods, junk food and takeaway meals. We can also stop adding salt to our home-cooked recipes.

“Cooking your meals from scratch is the first step to eating well. I recommend keeping your salt shaker in the cupboard and using lots of wholefoods first to flavour your meals, wherever possible.”

“To add extra flavour to a meal, I recommend using citrus juice.”

“To add extra flavour to a meal, we recommend using citrus juice,” she says.  “Squeeze fresh lemon juice over your veggies or add fresh orange juice to a dressing over a salad. You can also opt for natural enhancers like garlic, ginger and chilli.”

Alternatively, you can try adding the following ingredients that have a naturally salty taste to your meals (in controlled portions) instead of sprinkling salt.

No tinned foods or salty feta: A yiayia's advice on how to lose weight and be healthy
The 71-year-old, Greek grandmother, Helen Dedes, had to cut sugary and salty traditional foods from her diet after she had two heart attacks and a quadruple bypass. The former Sydney restauranteur says that if she can change the way she eats, so can you.

Seaweed

“Seaweed is a great alternative to added salt because it’s packed with iodine and lots of minerals, and it provides a sea flavour. I often buy nori sheets – a dried, edible Japanese seaweed – and crumble it over my food. It works great when added to soups, stir-fries and stews. You can also top your vegetables with it.

“Just be careful of seaweed snacks that contain added salt and extra fats.” Always check the nutritional panel on the back of the pack to determine if the sodium and fat content is right for you.

Nutritional yeast

Nutritional yeast is an on-trend food that O'Hanlon believes makes a great salt alternative. 

"It has very little sodium in it but it packs a lot of flavour and contains B vitamins. Nutritional yeast is also is great for vegan cooking because it’s often used as a replacement for cheese.”

How 'nutritious' is nutritional yeast, really?
Nutritional yeast - also called 'nooch' and 'hippy dust'- is another ancient food that's been marketed as 'healthy' in modern times. But does nutritional yeast really live up to its name, and how do you use it in cooking?

Mushroom

Mushies boast an umami flavour that can enhance the taste of your dish without needing to add salt.

“They contain glutamates, which are a natural food chemical that enhances the umami taste of your dish. In fact, some studies have found that foods that contain these natural glutamates (like mushrooms) can reduce the need for salt by 30 to 40 per cent...”

Mushrooms, which are naturally very low in sodium, are also packed with a lot of nutrients like B vitamins: that's a triple health bonus.

Easy spaghetti alla puttanesca

Alla puttanesca is one of the best ways to enjoy an Italian fare - with capers, anchovies, olives and rich tomatoes, it's a Mediterranean delight.

Anchovies

“Anchovies are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids and a good wholefood substitute for added salt. A little goes a long way by using one or two as part of a salad dressing."

Or, you use anchovies when making a red Italian sauce. Simply add it to the pan at the same time you cook the garlic to give your dish a subtle salty taste. "Just make sure you are aware of how many anchovies you use and keep the portion size in mind.”

Saltbush

“This Australian native food contains about 20 per cent less sodium than [table salt] but still has quite a salty flavour. Again, I would not recommend using a lot of it. However, a little saltbush certainly goes a very long way.” Saltbush, as the edible plant, is salty and herbaceous in flavour and is often an underutilised Indigenous ingredient -  especially given how versatile it is and how beautifully it is paired in dishes. 

 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Instagram @yasmin_noone. 

Comment: I found hope after discovering type 2 diabetes was not inevitable
Rita Pinto, spent decades believing that one day she would develop type 2 diabetes because it ran in her family. As the 48-year-old nurse tells SBS, understanding the truth about the condition empowered her to prevent it.
I'm using my second chance at life to inspire my kitchen
At age 36, Syed Ahmed was diagnosed with a rare heart condition and had a cardiac arrest. Rather than give up, the Melbourne local drew inspiration from food and taught himself to cook during lockdown to make his second chance at life count. Here's his story.
Want to protect your heart? Eat less meat and more nuts
Eating meat may increase your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, while eating lots of nuts and seeds could protect your heart, a new study says.
Why being able to distinguish between a good and a bad fat matters so much
We know we should eat less of the fats that contribute to cardiovascular disease - but many people don't know which fats are good and which are harmful.