Is salt really dangerous?

Most of us exceed the recommended 6g of salt per day, but a new study says that it may not be that bad for us

Most of us exceed the recommended 6g of salt per day, but a new study says that it may not be that bad for us

Most of us love kosher delicacies like smoked salmon, shmaltz herring, pickles and chicken soup.

But these kiddush staples contain high proportions of salt which, as we know, is bad news for hearts. Or is it?

Recent research from the department of nutrition at the University of California found that it may be difficult to consume too much salt.

Professor David McCarron measured salt losses in the urine of almost 20,000 people in 33 countries and he found that our organs are naturally able to regulate our salt intake.

Reporting in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, Professor McCarron said: “It appears that our bodies naturally dictate how much sodium we consume to maintain a physiologically set normal range.”

Moreover, salt — sodium chloride — does have some important health properties. It regulates fluid balance and is important for nerves and muscles to function well. Too little salt can cause mental confusion, an inability to concentrate and, in extreme cases it can lead to hyponatraemia, a potentially fatal condition, which leads to a swelling of the brain.

Meanwhile Michael Alderman, professor of medicine and epidemiology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and a former president of the International Society of Hypertension, who has spent years researching the effects of salt on health, says that only one rigorous clinical trial has been reported so far.

“As it turned out, the group that adhered to a lower sodium diet actually suffered significantly more cardiovascular deaths and hospitalisations than did the one assigned to the higher sodium diet,” he says.

Dr Andrew Deaner, consultant cardiologist at King George’s Hospital and The London Heart and Chest Hospital, agrees there have not been enough studies done on salt and its effects on blood pressure, but he nevertheless insists that it is a good idea to keep your salt intake down to the recommended dose of 6g a day (around two level teaspoons) rather than what we actually consume in this country which is reportedly 8.6g daily.

“There’s some debate about the benefits of reducing the amount of salt in the diet of otherwise healthy people, but the current advice remains to be careful about excessive amounts of salt,” he says, adding: “The evidence may become clearer as more trials are published.”

Registered dietician Luci Daniels recommends sticking to the 6g a day rule as well.

“Salt may or may not be a problem but if you have a risk of developing high blood pressure then it is worth watching your intake. Some people are more salt sensitive than others. In the general population we don’t know who is salt sensitive, so it’s best to limit your intake.” For this reason, Daniels emphasises that people need to understand where the salt comes from in their diet, as often it is not clearly labelled — particularly on kosher food packaging like soup powder, whose first ingredient is salt. What makes matters more confusing is that if the information is listed on the packet, it is the amount of sodium, rather than salt, that is is usually given. To convert it, multiply the figure by 2.5.

“Common kosher products like salami, viennas, salt beef, smoked salmon, pickled herring, stock powder and stock cubes, pickled cucumbers and olives are really high in salt and people don’t realise it,” she says.

“If you eat smoked salmon for breakfast, cheese for lunch and salt beef for supper with a cup of soup and some pickles, you will be eating far too much salt.”

Like many of us, Daniels has noticed that she does feel extremely thirsty after enjoying a meal at a kosher restaurant and urges these restaurants and kosher food companies to lay off the salt, particularly as there is no longer any need to use it as a preservative.

She adds that the process of koshering meat — which is to salt it — does not represent a risk since most of the salt is washed off. But she does say we should watch how much we add in our cooking and at the table.

“If I see people who need to cut down on their salt I would usually advise them to use smaller amounts in their cooking and instead use herbs, spices and black pepper. But about 70 per cent of the salt we eat comes from processed foods. The message is not to cut out all salt but just to cut down on it.”

She also recommends eating more fruit and vegetables, whose potassium content can counteract the effects of sodium in the body.

    Last updated: 11:42am, November 12 2009