THE BLOG

Weaning the World Off Salt

12/03/2014 16:40 GMT | Updated 12/05/2014 10:59 BST

If there's one ingredient that has regularly hit the headlines over the last couple of months, it's sugar. But this week, a similar looking foodstuff has replaced our attention - salt.

This harmless looking mineral has a lot to answer for. And the fact that most people's only direct contact with it is a sprinkle at the dinner table means we're being misled as to how much salt we're actually consuming.

As it's Salt Awareness Week, I want to draw attention to these minute, white grains, and highlight the silent but deadly effect they're having on billions of people's health across the world.

You might not consider yourself to be a salt lover; you may never even add salt to your food at the table. But most people regularly consume more salt than the recommended daily limit (6g). This is because around 75% of the salt in our diets is already added to the food we eat. Bread, pasta sauces, cured meats, cheese, even your favourite biscuits, all contain salt. Milk chocolate digestive biscuits, for example, contain nearly 0.25g per biscuit - so nibbling through four biscuits makes up a fifth of your recommended daily intake. The fact that salt is already hidden in so many of our foods means people are completely unaware that they regularly go over their daily quota.

Just as salt is tucked away silently and undetectably in our foods, the effect it can have on our bodies is equally as hidden. There is strong evidence that links a high salt intake to high blood pressure - a major cause of stroke and heart attack, and responsible for nine million deaths every single year.

One in three adults has high blood pressure. And because it rarely causes symptoms, many people are blissfully unaware of the long-term damage high blood pressure can cause to their arteries and heart. Hence why it's widely known as the silent killer.

A diet high in salt has also been strongly linked to other conditions, such as osteoporosis, cancer of the stomach, kidney disease, kidney stones, obesity, Alzheimer's disease and diabetes.

As much as this paints a grim picture, the good news is, something as simple as cutting down on salt can significantly lower your blood pressure. The bad news is, getting the message across is not proving so simple.

There are action groups working hard to improve global health by reducing salt intake. The World Action on Salt and Health is making good strides. They're encouraging food companies to reduce the amount of salt in their products and working with governments across the world to put salt reductions strategies in place.

An area I think needs more focus, however, is children's salt intake. What products are we feeding our children? Are these high in salt? And could salty foods from a young age be affecting their taste preferences and therefore future eating habits? Reported just this week, a study has found that nearly three quarters of children are consuming more than the recommended daily limit of salt, with most of this hidden in bread and breakfast cereals.

Research shows that a diet high in salt can affect children's blood pressure and may predispose them to a number of conditions in the future, such high blood pressure, osteoporosis and stomach cancer. And the higher a person's blood pressure in childhood, the higher it will be in adulthood, increasing their risk of heart disease and stroke.

Eating habits in childhood influence eating patterns in later life. Liking the taste of salty food is actually a learned taste preference. Therefore, those who eat little salt taste the natural flavours of food a lot more than those who have a lot of salt. The current focus is wrong. Surely salt reduction strategies would be far more successful if children don't develop a preference for salt in the first place?

In fact, the issue of a learned taste preference for salt is something we need to tackle across all age groups. Years of eating manufactured foods that have a high salt content have influenced our preference for salty flavours. It's now at a point where we're not only tackling current guidelines and how much salt is added to products we eat, but also starting a weaning process.

If you enjoy salty food, use Salt Awareness Week as a kick start to reduce your salt intake. Give yourself time - foods may taste bland to start with, but this is only because you've developed a preference for salty tastes. After two or three weeks, your sense of taste will start to reprogram. To boost the flavour of your meal, swap the salt for other tasty ingredients such as chilli, garlic, herbs or lemon. As well as awakening your senses, most importantly, cutting the salt is going to reduce your risk of developing many serious health conditions in the future.

The weaning process may have begun, but how far will we get when people consume so many packaged food products that continue to feed our salt addiction? Governments and food manufacturers have a critical role to play in reducing our salt intake and improving the health of our hearts. This crisis will not be fixed by simply putting away the salt cellar.