Salt: easy does it!

Do you monitor your blood pressure and avoid table salt and cooking salt? You may be on the wrong track!

Calories aren't the only thing that adds during the holidays. The salt count also rises. Why? Because more than 75% of the sodium you consume comes from processed food. A pig-in-a-blanket here, a small smoked salmon canapé there...

Salt is salt

Whether you prefer sea salt, fleur de sel, kosher salt or an exotic, trendy salt, all salt contains as much sodium as regular table salt: 2,300 mg of sodium in 1 teaspoon (5 ml). That's the maximum recommended level of sodium intake per day. However, most of us ingest a lot more than that, 3,400 mg of sodium on average every day, sometimes even more.

Pass the salt!

Few people know that salt added during cooking accounts for only 6% of our sodium intake, and salt added at the table, just 5%. But, this is where people slash first, cutting taste at the same time, because salt is a strong, complex cooking ingredient. It emphasizes the sweet, reduces bitterness, brings out the flavour in food. Salt influences not only a food's taste, but its texture and appearance, as well.

As for salt found naturally in fresh food, such as vegetables, seafood and milk, it accounts for only a tenth of our sodium intake.

So, where does most of the sodium come from then?

You have to put convenience food and processed food under the microscope, as well as restaurant food sold in grocery stores (fast food) or from the take-out counter:

  • Bread and bakery products: olive focaccia bread, cheese bread...
  • Processed meats and smoked fish: pâté, cold cuts, sausage, bacon, ham, smoked meat…
  • Prepared food: pizza, hot chicken, club sandwich, fried rice, poutine…
  • Cheese
  • Crackers
  • Tomato and vegetable juice
  • Soup and broth: in cubes, packets and cans
  • Commercial sauces, condiments and dressings: soy, chili, barbecue, Worcestershire, teriyaki, mustard, ketchup
  • Marinades: pickles, olives, pickled beets and vegetables…
  • Chips
  • Salty peanuts and other nuts
  • Sugar breakfast cereal

Sodium also hides in various forms as an additive or ingredient in thousands of foods:

  • Sodium bicarbonate or baking soda
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Baking powder
  • Celery salt, garlic salt, onion salt
  • Citrate, sodium benzoate or phosphate, etc.

Salt: what's the problem?

Think back to chemistry class: salt is NaCl, or sodium chloride, two nutrients essential for health. Sodium is what makes many people's blood pressure rise, when consumed in large quantities. High blood pressure is even the main cause of cardiovascular disease and stroke (cerebrovascular accident or CVA). According to the World Health Organization, high blood pressure remains the leading risk factor of preventable death anywhere on the planet. One in five adult suffers from high blood pressure. Among octogenarians, this number rises to nine out of ten. When you take a look at the aging population and obesity issues, you can see how high blood pressure is gaining ground.

That's not all

Too much sodium promotes water retention and kidney problems, aggravates asthma, increases the risk of stomach cancer, and even osteoporosis. If the majority of the population knows that too much sodium is harmful to your health, many are not concerned about this issue or know what to do about it.

Sodium in these foods? Shocking!

Foods that come to mind are bacon or salty chips. But sodium hides in unexpected places

  • 1 packet of Ramen-type instant noodles = 1650 mg of sodium 
  • 1 Big Mac = 1020 mg of sodium 
  • Soy sauce, 15 ml (1 tbsp.) = 970 mg of sodium
  • 1 hot dog with ketchup = 810 mg of sodium
  • Vegetable juice, 250 ml (1 cup) = 670 mg of sodium
  • Prosciutto, 2 slices = 560 mg of sodium
  • 1 whole wheat bagel = 550 mg of sodium
  • Processed cheese, 1 thick slice = 530 mg of sodium
  • Cereal, 180 ml (3/4 cup) = 380 mg of sodium

It depends on the person. Some substitutes are flavour enhancers that are potassium-based, not sodium-based. The problem with these salt substitutes is that they have a very bitter aftertaste (especially when heated), and this makes them unsuitable for cooking. In addition, some people with kidney or heart disease have to monitor their potassium intake and should consult their doctor or nutritionist before eating it. Instead, they should use a salt-free and MSG-free seasoning blend available in grocery stores (such as Mrs. Dash) or one made at home using favourite herbs and spices. Without salt, of course.Salt substitutes: a good idea?

Step by step

Reducing salt intake is unthinkable for most people. And yet... do you feel your socks on your feet? Probably not, since you are used to wearing socks every day. Do you taste salt in your saliva? Have you successfully switched from 3.25% to 2% milk? The same thing can happen with salt: your body and taste buds will learn to adapt!

But it does take time, around three months, so go easy, knowing that a 10-20% reduction in sodium intake is not usually detected by taste receptors. As well, instead of eliminating salt completely, take it step by step in order to accustom your palate to the taste of less salty food. Once this step is completed, you will notice a real, often disagreeable, difference when you eat something salty. You have to try it to believe it…

How to eat less salt? 5 ways to get there...

  1. First, by cooking at home using fresh ingredients that are as unprocessed as possible, and by using salt in moderation as needed to enhance flavour. Too many people automatically add salt, even before tasting it.
  2. By limiting the amount of processed foods you buy that are high in salt, such as prepackaged food and prepared meals. When there are no other options, make sure your diet includes lots of vegetables, fresh fruit, milk, yogurt and other foods that are naturally low in salt.
  3. Compare the labels of processed foods and choose the one with the least sodium. Several food companies have made a lot of effort and invested in research to reduce the amount of sodium in their products. For example, Campbell's famous tomato soup has gone from 890 mg of sodium to 770 mg, then to 640 mg and finally to 480 mg per serving in 2010, a decrease of nearly 50%.
  4. By going half-and-half: low-sodium products are often panned by consumers because they taste too bland. To incorporate them into your diet, use the 50-50 approach. For example, take half a glass of regular tomato juice and add the same amount of low-sodium juice. You drink a juice with 310 mg of sodium, instead of the usual 480 mg.
  5. By adding flavour to your recipes:
    • lots of fresh herbs (basil, coriander, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, chives)
    • tasty oil (olive, nut, grilled sesame)
    • wine
    • spices (cumin, pepper, chili, curry, smoked paprika)
    • horseradish
    • handful of dried onions
    • lemon or lime juice
    • vinegar
    • mustard or wasabi
    • raw or powdered garlic
    • citrus zest
    • cayenne or another hot pepper

Hélène Laurendeau

A nutrition and health enthusiast who loves to share: this description fits Hélène Laurendeau to a tee. She has been active for more than 25 years in the media and communications field. Nutritionist, host, columnist, author and speaker, Hélène holds a Bachelor degree in Nutrition and a Master degree in Epidemiology. She has spread her knowledge alongside Ricardo every week since 2005, as part of his daily show broadcast on ICI Radio-Canada Télé, as well as in Ricardo magazine, where she pens the Bien se nourrir (Eating Well) column.