What you need to know about salt

Statistics say most of us are eating too much salt. So the big questions are why, what’s the big deal if we do, and how can we cut back? Read on for our expert advice.
Published 27 February, 2023

What are the health effects of too much salt?

Salt contains sodium, a mineral that increases the risk of high blood pressure if you eat too much of it. And high blood pressure is a major risk factor for stroke, heart disease and kidney disease. Plus, a ‘salty diet’ increases the amount of calcium your body excretes, which can bump up your risk of osteoporosis. As a result, UK health guidelines recommend that adults should eat no more than 6g of salt a day (2.4g sodium) – that's around 1 teaspoon. However, if you’ve already got high blood pressure, try to reduce your salt intake to 4g (1600 mg of sodium) a day.

How much salt do we actually need?

Once upon a time, salt was so precious it was used as currency, utilised in all sorts of superstitious practices and even helped to ignite revolutions due to its scarcity. These days, it’s such a staple that we not only take salt for granted, we’re eating a lot of it, fuelled partly by the fact that when salty foods are regularly on the menu, our taste buds develop a preference for it. And, while the human body only needs around 1g of salt per day to function properly, on average, adults in England consume 8.4g a day - that's 40 percent above the national guideline.

What’s the difference between salt and sodium?

Salt is a mineral made up of sodium and chloride. Sodium is a chemical element that occurs in salt and many foods. Our body needs a small amount of sodium to help regulate fluid levels, but too much may cause high blood pressure and can lead to health problems.

Aim for 1 tsp (4g) of salt a day (1600mg of sodium).

Maximum limit is 1½ tsp (6g) of salt a day (2300mg of sodium).

Himalayan salt vs sea salt?

That expensive pink Himalayan sea salt looks beautiful, but is it any better for you than table salt? Sea salt is produced by evaporating water from the ocean or inland lakes and is less processed than table salt, which undergoes a purification process to make it finer. Sea salt may be more ‘natural’ than table salt, but it’s no healthier and contains exactly the same amount of sodium.

Sea salt also often contains trace minerals from its water source that give it colour and flavour, such as the pink Himalayan salts. These are often touted as having health benefits but their mineral content is too small to have any nutritional value. The bottom line: Gourmet salts add flavour and texture, but they’re no better than table salt.

Should I cut back on salt?

Yes and no. The salt you physically add to your food only accounts for about a quarter of your daily sodium intake. In most people’s diets, the other 75 percent comes from processed foods—and not just salty ones like potato chips and bacon, but also processed foods that might not taste super salty, like bread, cereals, biscuits and cooking sauces. In fact, sometimes it’s not even ‘food’ you need to think about. A 2018 report found that, on average, just one tablespoon of soy sauce contains 61 percent of the recommended maximum daily sodium intake. And those tiny fish-shaped soy sauce bottles you get with your sushi? Each one contains nearly 10 percent of a day’s maximum daily sodium intake.

4 ways to cut back on salt

1. Focus on fresh, unprocessed foods
The majority of our salt intake comes from processed and packaged foods, so limit these and eat as much fresh fruit and veggies as possible. Also, aim to keep fast-food and takeaways options for occasional meals.

2. Pick low-sodium options
When you buy processed or canned foods, check nutrition information panels and go for low-sodium options, with less than 120mg per 100g. Try to avoid foods with 600mg of sodium or more per 100g.

3. Check labels
If you do want to start brand swapping, or to check up on a packaged food that doesn’t taste salty (because foods can be surprisingly high in sodium even if they aren’t particularly ‘salty’), check out the nutrition label. Less than 400mg of sodium per 100g is considered to be a moderate amount, while less than 120mg of sodium per 100g is considered low. Looking for products that have the words ‘no added salt’ or ‘reduced salt’ on the label is a good strategy, too.

4. Cut back on 'table salt'
It might only account for 25 percent of your salt intake, but reducing how much salt you add during cooking and when you’re serving a meal still adds up. No need to go cold turkey, either—slowly reduce your intake over a few weeks. That’ll give your taste buds time to adjust to the lower level of salt.

5. Add flavour
As you gradually reduce the amount of salt in your diet, by consuming reduced-salt ingredients and adding less salt as a seasoning, use ‘salt substitutes’ so you’re not missing out on flavour. These include garlic, fresh or dried herbs and spices—including chilli and pepper—as well as lemon or lime juice.

75% of salt in our diet comes from processed foods

Salt values in popular foods:

  • 2 slices (70g) wholegrain bread = 332mg sodium
  • 1 small bowl (40g) cornflakes = 344mg sodium
  • 1 medium (45g) white crumpet = 451mg sodium
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce = 1380mg sodium
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce = 1949mg sodium