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How Much Salt Is Too Much – and Why?

Our bodies need salt to function. But are you taking in too much? Here we look at which foods hide the highest doses of salt, and how eating too much hurts the body.

Over 6 million South Africans live with high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. This is a serious condition that dramatically raises your risk of dying from a stroke or chronic heart disease. And a major reason might be staring us in the face – from our plates. 

The World Health Organization recommends that we take in no more than 5g of salt each day. This is the equivalent of a single teaspoon. Yet research by the Heart & Stroke Foundation (HSF) of South Africa shows that most South Africans regularly exceed that, and may be consuming double or even triple that amount on a daily basis. 

The results can be fatal. One in every three people inSouth Africa suffer from high blood pressure, warns the HSF. Over half of them are completely unaware of the danger. Yet chronically high blood pressure is the leading risk factor for strokes and heart attacks in the country. 

Salt is naturally found in milk, meat and shellfish as well as a variety of processed or ready-made foods: bacon, ham and salami, cheese and salty snack foods are all bursting with sodium. These are the well-known culprits, says Cornel Joubert, a dietician at Mediclinic Potchefstroom – but it lurks in unexpected places too, and in high quantities. 

“Breads and processed cereals, which are usually consumed on a regular basis, offer high levels of sodium,” she says, “as are stocks for soups and gravies, soup powders, soy and fish sauce – and all of these come before we begin to add table salt as a condiment.”

Common symptoms of high blood pressure include regular and severe headaches, fatigue or confusion, vision problems, chest pain, difficulty breathing, and irregular heartbeat and blood in your urine. If you are suffering from hypertension, you need to drastically reduce your salt intake immediately, advises Ilsabé Spoelstra, a dietician at Mediclinic Bloemfontein. 

“In particular, stay away from salami, bacon and other processed meats, jars of spices and herbs, biltong and droëwors, packets of potato chips, pretzels or salted popcorn, pickles and olives, soya sauce, and packets of soup powder and ready made stocks,” she says. These are the usual high-salt culprits. 

Just 5g of salt usually renders about 2g of sodium. This is widely recognised as the healthy daily recommended limit, by The South African Department of Health, American Heart Association and many other government and non-governmental bodies across the world. 

Sticking to that limit is easier said than done, says Annaret Brand, a registered dietician at Mediclinic Milnerton. “Reducing your salt intake can become tricky because there are so many foods we consume on a daily basis that contain hidden salt – including staple foods,” she says. 

To try to reduce the salt in your diet, she recommends:

  1. Refrain from adding extra salt at the table
  2. Avoid processed foods – this includes canned goods, cured meats and fast foods
  3. Start reading labels

“When you go shopping, make it a habit to read the lists of ingredients on the box or packaging of your items before you put them in the trolley,” she says. That way, you will see how often sodium makes an appearance – and in what quantities – in places you would never expect it.