Salt and your health

Salt is vital to help our bodies function correctly, but it is also the only mineral which most of us over-consume.

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But considering its cheapness and global popularity as a food seasoning and preservative, it shouldn't be surprising that we eat a bit too much of it.

To mark upcoming World Salt Awareness Week we take a closer look at the ubiquitous white mineral.

What is it?
Salt is primarily composed of sodium chloride, a mineral which is essential to plant and animal life in small quantities but harmful in excess.

It is usually derived from either mining rock salt or evaporating seawater or brine - and is sometimes sold in an unrefined state as sea salt but more often refined as table salt.

Only around three per cent of salt production in the developed world is for culinary use, the majority goes for industrial use in processes such as the production of pulp and paper, setting dyes in textiles and fabrics, and the making of soaps and detergents.

Why is too much bad?
Too much salt has been proven to raise blood pressure - and those with high blood pressure are more likely to suffer from heart disease or strokes.

Around one third of adults in the UK already have high blood pressure, and it often doesn't have any symptoms, but the good news is that reducing salt intake is very effective in lowering blood pressure again.

High salt intake in babies is particularly dangerous, because their kidneys cannot process it effectively and large doses have been known to kill.

How best to cut down?
It's not just as simple as sprinkling less salt on your food, because so many of the foods we eat are already laden with the stuff, but it is still pretty easy to lower your salt intake.

Being aware of which foods are particularly high in salt and limiting your consumption of those is a good first step.

These include cheese, ham, bacon, gravy granules, anchovies, olives, soy sauce, pickle, salami, smoked meat and fish, prawns and yeast extracts.

Other foods CAN be high in salt and need to be checked (it should say on the packet). These include bread products, pasta sauces, ready meals, pizza, soups, crisps, sausages, ketchup, breakfast cereals and sandwiches.

Look at the nutrition information label on foods you buy and if there is more than 1.5g of salt per 100g then they are high in salt, while less than 0.3g per 100g is low in salt.

The daily recommended limit for salt is 6g - according to the Food Standards Agency at least 26m people in the UK eat more than that.

If you are cooking your meals from scratch - which is the best way to make sure you know what's in your dinner - then don't automatically add salt. Taste first and see if it really needs it. There may be a salty ingredient anyway.

Can we have too little salt?
Sodium deficiency is possible but is exceptionally rare because of the high levels of the mineral in our diet.

Prolonged illness, dehydration or excessive sweating can all lead to sodium deficiency - and symptoms include headache, nausea and vomiting, muscle cramps, drowsiness, fainting, fatigue and possibly coma.

Risk is greater in hot weather and endurance athletes such as marathon runners and triathletes can be particularly at risk - and often consume electrolyte supplements to prevent dehydration.

What do you think about salt and food? Comment below...